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General Editor: 



He who praises a man ought to follow him, and if he be not 
ready to follow him he' ought not to praise him. St. John 





Author of The Two Humanities, Down Peacock's Feathers, etc. 







Printed in Great Britain by 
The Camelot Press Ltd., London and Southampton 


To write a book on a contemporary thinker, especially 
a thinker of such eminence as Reinhold Niebuhr, has 
in it an element of presumption. When all is said, nobody 
can interpret Niebuhr so well as Niebuhr himself. There is 
the man, a living influence in two continents. His books are 
easily available for all who care to read. They are written 
in vigorous, clear, simple American English which anyone 
of average intelligence can grasp. Why then write a book 
about a man which, at best, will be inferior to the books of 
the man himself? A very reasonable question, and very much 
to the point. The following pages can only be justified by 
a satisfactory answer to that question. 

First, then, in a series of .books about contemporary 
Christian revolutionaries, if such a series is to be remotely 
representative, the omission of Reinhold Niebuhr is im- 
possible. That in itself constitutes a sufficiently good reason 
for writing on Niebuhr. A series purporting to describe and 
discuss living Christian revolutionaries which omitted 
Niebuhr would be ridiculous. Comparisons are invidious, 
but this at least may be said: that among the Christian 
revolutionaries of both Europe and America to-day, there 
is, most certainly, none greater, more significant or more 
influential than Reinhold Niebuhr. A series which by-passed 
him would be self-condemned. "Where MacTavish sits is 
the head of the table." Niebuhr is one of the most vital 
centres of Christian thinking in politics and sociology 

But there is another and even stronger reason for this 
book. The present writer has been deeply impressed, and 
very much surprised at first, by the frequency with which 
well-educated and intelligent people have confessed that 
they do not understand Dr. Niebuhr, that they "can't get 



the hang" of what he is saying. In lecturing to students and 
clergy and ministers of all denominations, the present writer 
has come across scores of men (among whom Oxford and 
Cambridge were well represented) who failed to grasp 
Dr. Niebuhr's position. They confessed to being confused 
by what they could not help thinking was Dr. Niebuhr's 
inconsistencies and self-contradictions. As one quite in- 
telligent person put it: "Niebuhr no sooner makes a 
statement than he seems to affirm the opposite." In other 
words, there is a number of people who, in spite of their 
eagerness to read and understand Niebuhr, fail to understand 
what he is saying, because of their unfamiliarity with his 
way of thinking. Reinhold Niebuhr is a supremely "dialec- 
tical" thinker. In his mental process, "either . . . or" is 
balanced by "both . . . and." Readers who can only think 
in terms of "either ... or" therefore find him difficult, and 
so are missing one of the most vital and profound contri- 
butions to contemporary Christian thought. This fact seems 
to indicate the need for a book of the kind attempted here. 
But in many cases the failure to understand Dr. Niebuhr 
is due, in the final analysis, not to inadequate intellectual 
processes, but to a defective attitude to life, and more 
especially to religion. This attitude may be described as an 
insufficient appreciation of the tragic element in moral 
experience, and of the abysmal element in religion, par- 
ticularly in Christianity. Men to whom life is essentially 
simple and capable of a purely rational comprehension will 
always find it difficult to understand men who are burdened 
by the realization of the ultimate inscrutability and incalcul- 
ability of life and religion. To this latter class belongs Dr. 
Niebuhr. His awareness of the depth beneath the depths 
makes it impossible for him to comprehend man's tragic 
history in a neat formula, without torn and ragged edges. 
In the contradictory being of man there is an ultimate abyss 
which defies smooth, rational statement. Dr. Niebuhr is 


unusual and exceptional in this: reared in a civilization of 
optimism, which manifested the maximum of human power 
over environment, he nevertheless was impressed more by 
man's tragic weakness than by his dazzling achievements. 
In this he is a very untypical American, but very typical of 
prophetic Christianity. In his sociological thinking he has 
anticipated a whole social development. He has kept one 
step ahead of history. That's what makes him a prophetic, 
Christian revolutionary. But also it is what makes him 
difficult for so many good, uncomplicated souls to under- 

I have undertaken the task of endeavouring to interpret 
Dr. Niebuhr to English readers with some diffidence, yet 
also with some relish. With diffidence, because one is 
anxious to do justice to a great contemporary figure in 
Christian theology and sociology. But I am emboldened to 
essay this task by the knowledge that my own theological 
and political development has been somewhat similar to 
Dr. Niebuhr's. In his generous too generous review of 
my first book, On To Orthodoxy (vide British Weekly, 
September 14, 1939), Dr. Niebuhr wrote that his own 
experience had been similar to mine. This means that I 
approach Dr. Niebuhr's thinking from the inside, from an 
inner comprehension which considerably illuminates the 
study of his writing. 

I have accepted the invitation to write this book with 
relish for the simple reason that it gives me the opportunity 
to express publicly my great indebtedness to Dr. Niebuhr. 
I first came across his work during a deep crisis in my own 
inner life, which Dr. Niebuhr, more than any contemporary 
thinker, helped me to resolve. If I can mediate him to men 
and women who may be struggling in the throes of some 
similar crisis, I shall feel amply justified and rewarded. 

I must not conclude this already too lengthy preface 
without expressing my warmest thanks to Dr. Niebuhr for 


his willingness to supply me with information. I have the 
liveliest and happiest recollections of a whole precious day 
which he gave to me in the midst of a crowded visit he made 
to England in 1943. His generous friendship, no less than 
his profound and acute writings, inspire in me the deepest 
gratitude. Needless to say, he bears no responsibility for this 
book which is entirely mine. 

My grateful thanks are also due to Dr. Niebuhr's English 
publishers, Messrs. James Nisbet & Co., Ltd., for kind 
permission to make quotations from his Gifford lectures, 
The Nature and Destiny of Man, and Beyond .Tragedy. 



The reader is advised to begin his study of Niebuhr with a little work 
w ich will give him some feeling of Niebuhr the man, Leaves from the 
Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Here the reader will see Niebuhr struggling 
to adapt himself to the demands and duties of a parish ministry. It is the 
struggle of an intensely human being, who will thus commend himself 
to the reader. The best introduction to Niebuhr's work is, I think, the 
book Does Modern Civilization Need Religion? in which are formulated 
most of his characteristic ideas, which he presents in more developed 
form in later work. The specific problem of the relevance of Christianity 
to civilization is best studied, to begin with at least, in An Interpretation 
of Christian Ethics. Niebuhr formulates the question here in more 
systematic form. His critique of contemporary civilization can be read in 
Moral Man and Immoral Society and in Reflections on the End of an Era. 
The above volumes should be thoroughly read and mastered before 
proceeding to the two volumes of Gifford lectures, but the reader should 
make certain of reading them in the end, for these two volumes, The 
Nature and Destiny of Man, are indispensable, books to be bought and 
not just borrowed. 

Does Modern Civilization Need Religion? Macmillan, 1928. 
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. R. R. Smith, New York, 

The Contribution of Religion to Social Work. (Forbes Lectures.) Columbia 

University Press, 1932. 

Moral Man and Immoral Society. Scribner, 1933. 
Reflections on the End of an Era. Scribner, 1934. 
An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. (Rauchenbusch Memorial Lectures.) 

Harper, 1935. 
Does the State and Nation Belong to God or the Devil? (Burge Memorial 

Lecture.) S.C.M. Press, 1937. 
The Protestant Opposition Movement in Germany, 1934-37. Friends of 

Europe, 1937. 
Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History. Nisbet, 


Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist. S.C.M. Press, 1940. 
Europe's Catastrophe and the Christian Faith. Nisbet, 1940. 
Christianity and Power Politics. Scribner, 1940. 

The Nature and Destiny of Man. (Gifford Lectures.) 2 vols. Nisbet, 1941-3. 
Jews after the War. University Jewish Federation of Great Britain, 1943. 
The Children of Darkness and the Children of Light. Nisbet, 1945. 


PREFACE . . . . ' . ; k . .5 



fl. MOVEMENT TO THE RIGHT . . -* " . 35 




The Making of a Revolutionary 

REINHOLD NIEBUHR, as his name suggests, is of German 
extraction, though he is a full American citizen. His 
American birth and rearing, together with his German 
origin, may partly account for the unusual combination in 
him of qualities which nearly always are separate; for 
Niebuhr is distinguished by the fact of an intense awareness 
of ultimate problems allied with an equally intense pre- 
occupation with the immediate, concrete, practical next 
step. In most men these qualities exist in isolation from each 
other. As a rule, men who are absorbed in the contemplation 
of the final, ultimate problems of human existence are 
oblivious to the relative, practical necessities under which 
men have to live. They do not feel the pressure and the 
urgency of the concrete political and social problems 
demanding some kind of solution or other. The theologian 
or philosopher, wrestling with the great problems of the 
nature of being, the destiny of man, the purpose and 
meaning of existence, usually has no mind for the immediate 
political problem. And vice-versa, the man who finds the 
breath of life in tackling the emerging problems of con- 
temporary social and historic development hardly ever lifts 
his mind to the level of final issues. Niebuhr is one of those 
rare thinkers in whose mind these two phases the im- 
mediate and the ultimate are in an organic, dynamic 
relation. They are not static entities in his mind. It is not 
that he has a spell, so to speak, during which his mind is 
given over to immediate issues the new form of inter- 
national relationships, the next step in social legislation, 
etc.; then another spell during which his mind becomes 
absorbed with questions of eschatology, the significance of 


Providence in history, etc. Niebuhr's thinking is a process 
in which every immediate problem is set in the context of 
the ultimate, and the ultimate reality is informed with 
concrete historic content by its relation to immediate social 
issues. His thinking faithfully reflects the tension of daily 

This combination may be partly due, as already suggested, 
to Niebuhr's German origin and to his American birth and 
environment. In his veins there mingle the blood of the 
German philosopher and that of the "Anglo-Saxon" 
politician and practician. The German mind functions 
naturally and at its best it is its genius in the contempla- 
tion of the ultimate mysteries of thought. Characteristic of 
the German mind is the Hegelian attempt to systematize 
the Absolute, and the Kantian attempt to formulate the 
nature of knowing, to relate practical reason and pure 
reason. The raw material of German philosophy is the final 
mystery of being. But English philosophy, from which the 
chief element of the American mind derives, is concerned 
mainly with practical political problems Hobbes and 
what constitutes the state; Locke and what constitutes 
society. Hume, it is true, goes beyond these questions but 
Hume was a Scotsman. Americanism is a "stepping-stone" 
of "Anglo-Saxon" mentality. It is in the nature of things 
that pluralism should be an American philosophical pro- 
duct, in which the Absolute is reduced to a mere succession 
of relativities. American civilization had, of course, to deal 
with an immediate practical problem, which brooked no 
delay. Thus the American mind, which has been shaped by 
the demands of the immediate, is the antithesis of the 
German mind. But in Reinhold Niebuhr, the German 
mentality and temper, with a zest for the immediate job to 
be done these twain have been fused into a new mentality, 
in which the concrete and the ultimate hold on to each 
other in a restless tension. 


He was born on June 21, 1892, the son of a German 
Evangelical pastor, Gustav Niebuhr, so that he is a son of the 
manse. And here it may be well to kill the legend, so wide- 
spread in Great Britain, that he was reluctant to enter the 
ministry. It is simply not true. He was brought up in a 
pastor's home and he remembers, with gratitude, his 
father's prayers at the family altar. His father, who was a 
keen theological student, of liberal tendencies, and a deeply 
cultured man, did not bring any pressure to bear on Niebuhr 
to enter the ministry. But he relates that, after considerable 
thought, he decided, on his own initiative, to become a 
minister. It was with great rejoicing that his father heard 
the news, to whom he communicated it in the simple words, 
"Father, I want 'to become a minister." There can be no 
doubt whatever that Niebuhr felt quite certain of his 
vocation. He felt no reluctance of any kind about becoming 
a minister. He did feel some doubt whether he should 
exercise his ministry in the German Evangelical Church, 
which was one of the smaller, lesser-known and narrower 
off-shoots of the German Lutheran Church. Niebuhr 
probably felt the urge to swim in the broader, fuller stream 
of American ^religious life, compared to which the German 
Evangelical Church of the early nineteen-hundreds was a 
sluggish backwater. But Niebuhr's hesitation was not 
whether to become a minister or not, but whether to be- 
come a German Evangelical minister, and whether to 
become a parish minister or a theological teacher. One of 
Niebuhr's professors, Macintosh, influenced him in the 
direction of theological teaching. On completion of his 
course at Elmhurst College (the denominational school) 
and Yale University, Niebuhr was "ordered", in accordance 
with the practice of the body, to take up the parochial 
ministry of Bethel Evangelical church in Detroit". With his 
mind set on teaching, perhaps there was some reluctance to 
enter on the work of a parish; for Niebuhr confesses that 


he "entered and left the parish ministry against my in- 
clinations . . ." 1 

As a matter of fact, however, Niebuhr did not quite 
complete the educational course he had originally intended. 
After reading arts and a certain amount of theology at 
Elmhurst College, he went to Yale with the idea of reading 
for a doctorate in theology, for this was the necessary 
passport to a professorship in theology. But before attaining 
the degree Niebuhr as he himself puts it "quit." By the 
time he graduated as master of arts, for which he read a 
considerable amount of theology, he had become irritated 
by the irrelevance of much of his theological study to the 
actual daily life around him. I do not mean by this what so 
many theological students mean when they revolt against 
scientific discipline. Many men who merely dislike the 
study, eg., of Biblical languages, church history, systematic 
doctrine, etc., rationalize their reluctance to submit to 
intellectual discipline by persuading themselves that all this 
has nothing to do with the actual work of the ministry. 
Their feeling of irrelevance is a convenient camouflage for 
laziness. This was not what Niebuhr felt; for, quite obvi- 
ously, the pursuit of ideas is a natural passion with him, an 
activity delightful for its own sake. What he felt was some- 
thing very different, and was the first symptom of his 
possession by a Christian revolutionary spirit. 

In the years of Niebuhr's theological training, religious 
liberalism 2 was at its height, especially in America, where 

1 Vide Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, p. xii. This is a 
book of priceless wisdom for theological students. It consists of extracts 
from a diary which Dr. Niebuhr kept during his thirteen years' pastorate. 
An English edition would be a great boon to students. It would probably 
save them from many of the errors and pitfalls in which the Christian 
ministry of all denominations so amply abounds. 

2 What term should one use to describe the theological tendency' which 
was dominated by modern rationalism and the idea of inevitable 
progress? "Humanism" is hardly correct, since it lacks the religious 


it was the natural and almost inevitable consequence in 
theology of the gigantic conquests of American skill and 
technique. Orthodoxy was at a discount. For a theological 
student in the early nineteen hundreds to be orthodox was 
an anachronism. To be in the swim one had to be liberal. 
The bright young men inevitably found their way on to the 
band-wagon of liberalism. "I believe in the forgiveness of 
sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." 
Of these words Niebuhr writes: 

"These closing words of the Apostolic Creed, in which 
the Christian hope of the fulfilment of life is expressed, 
were, as I remember it, an offence and a stumbling- 
block to young theologians at the time when my 
generation graduated from theological seminaries. 
Those of us who were expected to express our Christian 
faith in terms of the Apostolic creed at the occasion of 
our ordination had long and searching discussions on 
the problem presented by the creed, particularly by the 
last phrase. We were not certain that we could honestly 
express our faith in such a formula. If we were finally pre- 
vailed upon to do so, it was usually with a patronizing 
air toward the Christian past, with which we desired 
to express a sense of unity even if the price was the 
suppression of our moral and theological scruples over 
its inadequate rendering of the Christian faith. The 
twenty years which divide that time from this have 
brought great changes in theological thought though 
I am not certain that many of my contemporaries are 
not still of the same mind in which they were then. 

element: it was a secular philosophy of man and history. "Modernism" 
is misleading, since it conveys the impression that modern advances in 
knowledge and science are objected to by its opponents^-which, of 
course, is not the case. So in these pages, I shall stick to the terms "religi- 
ous liberalism," or "Protestant liberalism," for the Roman Catholic 
Church never dallied with the liberal movement in theology. 


Yet some of us have been persuaded to take the 
stone which we then rejected and make it the head of 
the corner. In other words, there is no part of the 
Apostolic creed which, in our present opinion, ex- 
presses the whole genius of the Christian faith more 
nearly than just this despised phrase: 'I believe in the 
resurrection of the body!' " (Beyond Tragedy, pp. 

This 1 passage expresses well the theological temper of the 
time in which Niebuhr was preparing for the ministry. It 
is significant that his reaction to it should be, in the first 
instance, not intellectual, but moral and psychological. 
Already Niebuhr was beginning to feel faintly that the 
predominating theological liberalism of his time was not 
relevant to the concrete problems of life and daily experi- 
ence. It did not fit into the context of the conflicting issues 
of the American scene. This easy, optimistic gospel of 
roaring, irresistible movement to Utopia was already 
beginning to sound out of tune somehow in the youthful 
student's ears. 

Now this is a most remarkable, significant fact, the 
importance of which the reader might easily miss. In 
reacting in this way to the theological liberalism of his time, 
Niebuhr was anticipating an entire process of historic 
development. In the triumphant peak of social progress, 
when the actual situation was so gloriously confirming faith 
in collective omnipotence, when, as yet, it conveyed no hint 
of the wrath to come, Niebuhr's ears caught the muffled 
echoes of the distant very distant thunder. With most 
Christian thinkers the situation is quite the reverse. They 
only become aware of social tendencies as they are passing 
away. They follow historic development a long way behind. 
They recognize and condemn social evils only when even 
the blind can no longer ignore them. There is nothing 


particularly prophetic in such an attitude. But Niebuhr was 
beginning to sense the coming storm and crisis of civiliza- 
tion when the sky was still apparently cloudless. It was this 
"sixth-sense" of his which was the source of his feeling that 
so much of the theology he was imbibing in his college days 
was irrelevant. His revolutionary spirit, therefore, was 
native to him, fundamtenal and inherent in his make-up, 
in his very being. It is necessary to emphasize this point. He 
did not acquire it as the result of a rational process by the 
study of some analytical sociology, such as Marxism. At 
this time, 1910-1915, he had not yet read Marx nor made 
contact with general Marxist literature. All this was to come 
later. His sensing of the underlying tragic and corrupting 
element in the social situation was the sign of his own 
creative, prophetic mind. One cannot "explain" this, in the 
sense of enumerating and analysing all the factors that 
caused or determined it. One can but recognize it as some- 
thing already in operation. 

So with this irritating consciousness of the irrelevance of 
much that he was perforce being compelled to learn, Nie- 
buhr did not proceed to his doctor's degree, which meant 
that he could not undertake a professorship. It, therefore, 
had to be the parochial cure of souls. 

In the German Evangelical Church individual congrega- 
tions did not invite men; the practice was for the central 
authority to place men in churches, a practice for which, in 
retrospect, Niebuhr feels there is a great deal to be said. So 
on leaving Yale after graduating M.A., Niebuhr was sent 
to undertake the pastorate of Bethel Evangelical church in 
Detroit in 1915. At that time it was but a small community 
of only eighteen families. As subsequent events showed, it 
was a good sphere in which to begin. The pastoral side of his 
ministry did not make too great a tax on his intellectual and 
spiritual resources, though he certainly felt the strain, both 
intellectually and spiritually. For instance, after he had 


preached about a dozen times, Niebuhr felt he had said all 
he had to say. "Now that I have preached about a dozen 
sermons, I find I am repeating myself. A different text 
simply means a different pretext for saying the same thing 
over again. The few ideas that I had worked into sermons at 
the seminary have all been used, and now what?" (Leaves 
from the Notebook ... p. 4.) Thus Niebuhr felt acutely the 
need to read and study. His desire was painfully accentuated 
by the necessities of his ministry. He was greatly handi- 
capped by his inability to buy books: during the first five 
years of his pastorate he bought hardly a single one. His 
very small salary made it impossible. It was during these 
years that he was so greatly preoccupied by the intellectual 
aspect of theology, and so needed most to get books. Later 
on, as the result of his pastoral work among the workers in 
the Ford plant, and of his own social observation, the ethical 
aspect of theological problems overshadowed the purely 
rational aspect in his thinking. We find this entry in his 
diary in 1920 after five years in the pastorate. "I am begin- 
ning to like the ministry. I think since I have stopped worry- 
ing so much about the intellectual problems of religion and 
have begun to explore some of its ethical problems there is 
more of a thrill in preaching. The real meaning of the 
gospel is in conflict with most of the customs and attitudes 
of our day at so many places that there is adventure in the 
Christian message, even if you only play around with its 
ideas in a conventional world" (op. cit., p. 27). 

Another instance of the strain which Niebuhr felt in 
these first five years arose from his acute personal shyness 
and sensitiveness, which, however, contributed greatly to 
his revolutionary development. It seems to be a law, both in 
personal experience and in the wider social development of 
civilization, that it is through the overcoming of what is 
painful and difficult that the best insights and achievements 
are realized. Dr. Niebuhr demonstrates this within the more 


restricted range of the experience of the individual. 
He found pastoral visitation, at first, to be most painful 
and difficult. To visit people in their homes and talk 
to them in terms of personal intimacy, which the pastoral 
office necessitates if it is to be genuinely exercised, he felt 
was something of an agony. He writes, "I am glad there are 
only eighteen families in this church. I have been visiting 
the members for six weeks, and haven't seen all of them yet. 
Usually I walk past a house two or three times before I 
summon the courage to go in. I am always very courteously 
received, so I don't know exactly why I should not be able 
to overcome this curious timidity" (op. cit. t p. 3). It was 
precisely through his subsequent personal contacts with 
Ford workers and others that Niebuhr came to comprehend 
the profoundly tragic and contradictory character of human 
nature as manifested in social and economic relationships. 
In his first essays at personal contacts with the members of 
his congregation he was laying the foundations of his pro- 
found and sincere personal interest and concern with the 
exploited classes of capitalist society. It is in this awareness 
of the reality of the personal that Niebuhr so finely displays 
the Christian revolutionary spirit. The defeat and tragedy of 
the secular revolutionary is that the reality of the individual 
as a person, an end in himself, is dissipated into mere social 
forces and institutionalism. The individual as a soul, a 
person, degenerates into a factor in the class or social 
struggle, especially in the crisis of an actual revolutionary 
situation. That is one reason why, in due course, the revolu- 
tionary can, in his turn, oppress and exploit the very people 
he set out to emancipate. This tendency to instrumentauze 
living souls, to which both secular and Christian revolu- 
tionaries are subject, was held in check in Niebuhr's case 
by the costliness with which he had learnt to secure 
personal" contacts and intimacy in the course of his 
pastoral work. A reality acquired under so much stress 


offered a tough resistance to the corrupting processes of 

The fact that Niebuhr increasingly tended to envisage 
and formulate theological problems in the framework of 
concrete personal relationships helps, perhaps, to explain 
a rare quality in Niebuhr a quality, moreover, which 
constituted an important element in his make-up as a 
Christian revolutionary. This "quality was an acute and 
constant awareness of the corrupting element in his own 
profession of Christian minister, and in his own ideas and 
interests. This capacity to see in oneself the tendency to self- 
deception and humbugging is rare in any and every calling, 
in the Christian ministry as in other professions: indeed, one 
may say especially in the Christian ministry. This power of 
"self-criticism," which later, in the Russian Communist 
party, was to become a cant phrase, was to become one of 
the major themes in Niebuhr's social analysis, and the one 
on which he has written with most power and illumination. 
We find almost at the beginning of his ministry that he was 
becoming aware of how fatally the will-to-power and 
egoistic compensation and satisfaction insinuated themselves 
into the most exalted activities of the ministerial office. 

"Beside the brutal facts of modern industrial life, how 
futile are all our homiletical spoutings! The Church is 
undoubtedly cultivating graces and preserving spiritual 
amenities in the more protected areas of our society. But it 
isn't changing the essential facts of modern industrial 
civilization by a hair's breadth" (op. cit., p. 79). Here is an 
instance of Niebuhr's refusal to close his eyes to fundamental 
facts. In the next quotation he indicates the general clerical 
reaction to this situation a reaction in which he sees his 
own participation. He places himself on the same level as 
those whom he blames. That is, he criticizes, but does not 
judge. "But I must confess that I haven't discovered much 
courage in the ministry. The average parson is characterized 


by suavity and circumspection rather than by robust forti- 
tude. I do not intend to be mean in my criticism, because I 
am a coward myself and find it tremendously difficult to 
run counter to general opinion" (op. cit., p. no). But he 
goes deeper than this. 

"One of the most fruitful sources of self-deception in 
the ministry is the proclamation of great ideals and 
principles without any clue to their relation .to the 
controversial issues of the day. The minister feels very 
heroic in uttering the ideals because he knows that some 
rather dangerous immediate consequences are involved 
in their application. But he doesn't make the applica- 
tion clear, and those who hear his words are either 
unable to see the immediate issue involved or they are 
unconsciously grateful to the preacher for not belabour- 
ing a contemporaneous issue which they know to be 
involved but would rather not face. I have myself too 
frequently avoided the specific application of general 
principles to controversial situations to be able to deny 
what really goes on in the mind of the preacher when 
he is doing this. I don't think I have always avoided it, 
and when I haven't I have invariable gotten into some 
difficulty" (op. cit., pp. 191-2). 

This passage illustrates, as does the whole book from 
which it is quoted, how close Niebuhr keeps to concrete, 
actual experience. And here, I think, is the explanation of 
one of the great qualities of Niebuhr, namely, his relevance 
to the whole contemporary situation of man in history. One 
of his greatest achievements is that he has made theology 
a science of secular urgency and significance. He is one of 
the very few theologians to whom secular and humanist 
thinkers pay attention, as much as they pay to their own 
publicists. This is a most rare achievement, of which few 
theologians can boast. In England, we can count them on 


the fingers of one hand, of whom one would undoubtedly 
be Mr. C. S. Lewis. Theology in the hands of the typical 
theologians of all schools has somehow come to seem remote 
from current issues and problems, an abstract, slightly 
faddist, pursuit. But, as Niebuhr presents it, it becomes a 
living, contemporary issue, more up-to-date than The 
Times, and certainly less pompous. Most men write about 
theology. But Niebuhr writes theology straight from the 
furnace of social conflict and tragedy. Theology, to Niebuhr, 
is no "ivory castle." It is thus because in his pastorate, his 
one and only pastorate, he was all the time under the 
pressure of hard, material realities; for an important factor 
he lived for thirteen years in Detroit. 

One of the greatest influences that went to the making of 
a Christian revolutionary out of Niebuhr was Henry 
Ford. Needless to say, Mr. Ford did not intend that, and, in 
all probability, is blissfully unaware that he has done any 
such thing. But this is in the fitness of Providence, which 
has always displayed a profound ironical sense of humour. 
Out of man's productive activity, Providence manufactures 
a by-product. St. Paul, the missionary, was one of the 
providential by-products of the Roman Empire. And 
Reinhold Niebuhr, the Christian revolutionary, was one 
of the by-products of Mr. Henry Ford's motor manufacture. 
At the same time as he was producing his tin-lizzies (which 
at a later stage he made into ladies) Mr. Ford was also pro- 
ducing at least one Christian revolutionary. Probably many 
more. But we are sure that he produced one. 

In 1915, the year in which Niebuhr began his work in the 
ministry, his church had little more than forty members. 
In 1928, when he became professor of applied Christian 
ethics at Union Seminary, New York, he left behind him a 


flourishing church of over 800 members. Niebuhr himself 
is very modest about this magnificent achievement. He says 
that any person, short of an utter incompetent, could have 
built a church in those hectic years, during which the 
population of Detroit increased from a hundred thousand 
to nearly a million. Whilst we shall thoroughly disagree 
with Niebuhr's own estimate of himself as a church-builder, 
we must acknowledge that the great increase in Detroit's 
population was a most favourable factor. It gave Niebuhr 
the opportunity, which he so splendidly turned to 

The dominant factor in this great growth of population 
was, of course, the great expansion in the Ford industries. 
After Henry Ford's romantic attempt with the ridiculous 
"peace ship" to end European hostilities in the war of 
1914-18, and when America entered the war in 1917, Ford 
settled down to organize gigantic production for the Ameri- 
can and associated armies. This meant a greatly extended 
plant and a vast increase in labour-power. This was the 
source of the increase of Detroit's population, which had to 
be catered for religiously as well as secularly. Niebuhr 
attracted both young and old to his church, and to some 
extent the age distinction coincided with the political com- 
plexion of his congregation. The younger people in the 
congregation tended to be "radical," in the American sense 
of the word, i.e., left-wing, progressive and liberal. The 
older people tended to be more conservative. Thus 
Niebuhr's congregation was nicely balanced, which partly 
accounts for the comparatively little trouble which he 
experienced as a result of his preaching and teaching. 
Niebuhr not only enunciated principles to which, as he 
says, nobody objects, he also indicated applications of those 
principles to current social issues, to which many people 
object. Niebuhr of course did not escape altogether. How 
could he? But the presence in his congregation of numerous 


radical-thinking young people kept the trouble within 

It was through his contact with the Ford workers, both 
inside his church and outside, that Niebuhr's attitude to 
social problems took shape; for he had opportunity to 
observe in the lives of people the inhuman effects of Ford's 
spurious idealism. And it taught him one thing in particular: 
the penetration of idealism by the corrupting element of 
self-interest; the inevitability of self-deception in the best 
intentions; the underlying cruelty and brutality in every 
class culture. He learnt this as a fact of living, sensitive, 
human suffering.' On the one hand were the loudly- 
trumpeted Ford principles of industrial organization in 
capitalist press and speeches throughout the world. On the 
other hand Niebuhr saw the results of those same principles 
at work in the daily life of men, women and children. So he 
learnt that social idealism could never be taken at face- 
value. He learnt that, not as an abstract principle, but as a 
pathological human process, as something that made men 
anxious and women fearful. There was in Niebuhr's social 
observation a profound prophetic quality, by means of 
which he was enabled to feel the struggle and suffering of 
people as a personal thing. He combined with the exactitude, 
the fact-finding mind of the social scientist, the passionate 
spirit and the religious insight of the prophet. Which serves 
to describe the Christian revolutionary, who is a synthesis 
of social scientist and religious prophet, of historic realism 
and super-historic revelation. It may be useful to give a few 
instances of Niebuhr's reactions to the Ford environment in 

At the close of the last war, from 1920 till about 1928, 
America experienced a phase of material progress and pros- 
perity. Every class in society enjoyed a relatively high 
standard of living. Money was abundant, and commodities 
hitherto regarded as luxuries of the privileged few entered 


into common use. Radios, automobiles and refrigerators 
became a general possession. To be without these was a sign 
of poverty. People of small incomes were enabled to 
negotiate the high prices of these and similar commodities 
by a fantastic development of the hire-purchase system. At 
one bound, America had entered into Eldorado. Was it not 
the land in which every working-man went to his work in 
his own motor-car? It is difficult in our present situation to 
recapture the atmosphere of untroubled optimism and 
irresponsible confidence that prevailed in that cloud-cuckoo 
land which America was in that boom period. At long last, 
the problem of poverty had been solved. The apologists for 
American capitalism laughed at the jeremiads of Marx and 
all the other prophets of gloom. Capitalism was functioning 
beautifully. At one and the same time it milled out ex- 
travagant profits to the capitalist at one end, and abundant 
wages to the proletariat at the other. High wages became 
a capitalist argument. The solemn economic experts were 
taken in. The Marxist analysis of surplus value was jeered 
at. "The fundamental business of the country," said Presi- 
dent Hoover, "is on a sound and prosperous basis." 

Now the leader of the hosts which had planted the New 
Jerusalem in America's vast and varied land was Henry 
Ford, to whom "history is bunk'." He claimed specifically 
three things: that he served the public by providing it with 
a good, cheap car; that he paid his workers high wages, a 
minimum of five dollars a day; that he secured them an 
ample leisure by instituting the five-day week. The world 
gaped in admiration at the Ford miracle. Reinhold Niebuhr, 
being on the spot and being in personal touch with the men 
for whom these wonderful things were being done, reacted 

Mr. Seebohm Rowntree, after a visit which he paid to the 
Ford works, said that it was the nearest thing to hell he had 
ever seen. That was the aspect of it which impinged on 


Niebuhr. All this triumph of organization, with its efficient 
service and its alleged benefits to the worker, was a vast 
mechanism which dehumanized and depersonalized the 
worker at the same time. It was all built up on the principle 
of a scientific reduction of physical movement to a mini- 
mum and of adapting the worker, the human agent, to the 
remorseless continuity of the machine. It was the worker, 
enslaved by the conveyor belt, who paid the price for this 
in nervous tension. Not Ford himself; nor the new technic- 
ians of labour-processes with their soulless research into 
the behaviour of human beings in the factory; nor the 
public, who little realized that the gallivanting jaunts which 
their tin-lizzie made possible were the result of the torn 
nerves of living men. Material progress might demand too 
great a price in human consciousness. "We went through 
one of the big automobile factories to-day. . . . The foundry 
interested me particularly. The heat was terrific. The men 
seemed weary. Here manual labour is a drudgery and toil 
is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in 
their work. They simply work to make a living. Their 
sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the 
fine cars we all run. And most of us run the cars without 
knowing what price is being paid for them. . . . We are all 
responsible. We all want the things which the factory pro- 
duces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much 
in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs" 
(op. cit., pp. 79-80). "The culture of every society seeks to 
obscure the brutalities on which it rests." In Niebuhr's 
vision the brutalities loomed larger than the loudly trum- 
peted progress and achievements. This vision made of him 
a permanent, penetrating critic of the entire social structure. 
He would concede the first of Ford's claims, namely that 
he provided the public with a good, cheap car. But over 
against that fact, Niebuhr was oppressed by the human 
misery it cost. 


Ford's second claim, that he paid high wages to his 
workers, especially that the minimum was five dollars a day, 
probably did as much as anything to push Niebuhr in a 
revolutionary direction. Factually and literally, of course, 
the claim could not be challenged. Even the floor-sweeper 
did get his five dollars for every day that he worked. But the 
implications were specious and misleading. The general 
assumption was that five dollars a day meant thirty dollars 
a week, fifteen hundred dollars a year of fifty weeks. The 
doorkeepers in Fords' factories were in receipt of the 
sumptuous salary of ^300 a year. That was the general 
belief. But it didn't work out that way. Not by a long 
chalk. Hardly a single one of Ford's vast army of workers 
ever managed to work six days a week, fifty weeks a year. 
The reality, therefore, behind the splendid facade of "five 
dollars- a day" was for great numbers a squalid poverty, 
which at times and for certain periods was grim and acute. 
The five dollars per day, by the end of the year, amounted 
to far less than fifteen hundred. I cannot pretend to give 
exact figures. But of the general fact, there could be no 
doubt: that owing to the number of days in the course of 
a year that they did not work, masses of Ford's workers in 
Detroit struggled along in acute poverty. 

"What a civilization this is! Naive gentlemen with a 
genius for mechanics suddenly become the arbiters over the 
lives and fortunes of hundreds and thousands. Their moral 
pretensions are credulously accepted at full value. No one 
bothers to ask whether an industry which can maintain a 
cash reserve of a quarter of a billion ought not make 
some provision for its unemployed. . . . The cry of the 
hungry is drowned in the song, 'Henry has made a lady out 
of Lizzy' " (op. cit., pp. 154-5). 

The third of Mr. Ford's claims was the most pretentious 
of all. Again, in the bare literal sense, it is quite true that in 
the course of a week his factory worked less hours for the 


same pay but at a much greater cost. He instituted the 
five-day week on the iniquitous speed-up principle. And if 
I may use a colloquialism, this is what got Niebuhr's goat. 
Ford's labour engineers worked out a greater speed-up and 
concentration of physical processes in the factory, by means 
of which the workers were compelled to effect a greater 
production in jive days than in the previous six. So the Ford 
works switched over to five days a week, as a result of 
which there was a slight increase in production, and a slight 
decrease in financial cost, but a greater expenditure of 
nervous energy and nervous wear and tear. The cheapening 
of the economic cost of production of the Ford car resulted 
inevitably in the cheapening also of the personality of the 

Every one of Ford's supposed benefits for the workers 
was of still greater benefit to Henry Ford which rather 
takes the gilt off the gingerbread. In every case, it was the 
public that stumped up the cash, and the workers themselves 
who paid in additional nervous wear and tear. It was 
"enlightened self-interest" with a vengeance. 

Thus the thirteen years Niebuhr lived in Detroit were 
spent in seeing the moral and social consequences and 
implications of brutal economic facts. It was a discipline 
which made him a revolutionary; for he revolted against it 
with his whole soul. It made of him a Christian revolution- 
ary, since his revolt was determined by the vision of man as 
free personality, as one meant to be son of God. It is signifi- 
ant and fitting that this should have happened in Detroit. 
Henry Ford was the personal symbol of machine-power, 
mass-production etc., his vision was one of "machines to 
make more machines." Reinhold Niebuhr was a symbol 
too, a symbol of the response of the Christian gospel to this 
latest and greatest peril to the soul of man. 


During these thirteen years of intense activity in Detroit, 
Niebuhr became known nationally as a thorough-going 
"radical" a term which connoted everything opprobrious. 
In no country did the bolshevik bogey exercise a more 
searing influence among the middle classes than in the 
United States throughout the immediate post-war years. 
The country was swept by an unreasoning torrent of panic, 
when socialists, communists and liberals (lumped together 
as "radicals"), were savagely persecuted. It was, therefore, 
a very difficult and dangerous time in which to evince social 
sympathies. It speaks volumes for the personality and 
character of Niebuhr that, through all this panic, his 
influence continued to grow. He did not trim his revolu- 
tionary sails to the winds of reaction. 

As well as being in daily personal and pastoral contact 
with the members of his congregation, Niebuhr was also 
closely associated with labour and socialist organizations 
outside his church, a fact which constituted an excellent 
dialectical discipline. In this way he was compelled to relate 
his Christianity to a concrete human situation, and to relate 
social problems to Christian theology. This as much as 
anything was what moulded him into a Christian revolu- 
tionary, since his relation to non-church socialist groups 
made him familiar with non-christian revolutionary ideas 
and literature. The artificiality and secular ignorance of so 
many men in the ministry of all denominations is due to 
their restriction to professional church life. Their whole life 
almost is spent among church circles. Their reading is 
confined to professional theology, with the result that 
their knowledge of the world is refracted through a prism 
of religiosity. This breeds a certain pious unreality. Religious 
authorities might do worse than to make it compulsory for 
Christian ministers, during the first ten years of their 


ministry, to belong to some purely secular organizations. 
This was Niebuhr's practice throughout his entire ministry. 
His association with outside labour and socialist groups has 
continued to this day. 

It is important to observe that his socialist activities have 
not been carried on at the expense of his Christian activities. 
It happens only too often that Christian ministers who are 
active socialists come to be thought of in the public mind as 
being socialists first and only secondly Christian. Their 
Christianity has become subordinate to their socialism. The 
public impression is that Christianity is definable in terms of 
socialism. There can be no doubt that this impression is 
frequently unjust. But neither can there be any doubt that 
it is frequently just. In the minds of many ardent clerical 
socialists, Christianity is equated to and identified with 
socialism. When that happens, then, notwithstanding pro- 
testations to the contrary, Christianity does fall into second 
place. This has never happened with Reinhold Niebuhr. 
His Christianity is so obviously primary and fundamental 
that even the most prejudiced and fearful have never thought 
of him as anything but Christian. 

To what extent his economic and political reading con- 
tributed to his development as a Christian revolutionary 
one cannot speak with any confidence. That it informed his 
mind is, of course, obvious. Nobody can read Niebuhr 
without being impressed with the range and accuracy of his 
knowledge of economic and political theory and history. 
But did any of this make him a Christian revolutionary? 
This raises the question of what it is which makes men 
revolutionary or prophetic. And this is but a variant of the 
old, old question which has never yet been satisfactorily 
answered What makes genius? Who can tell? Where or 
how did Beethoven get his creative power? What was it in 
Jeremiah that singled him out for his profound prophetic 
role? How can we account for the fact that the bourgeois 


Marx became a revolutionary creator? Or Lenin? If one 
could answer these questions one might be able to attempt 
to define the factor which was decisive in making a Christian 
revolutionary out of Niebuhr. Men are geniuses and pro- 
phets in virtue of some mysterious, inner endowment. 
Genius and prophecy are inexplicable in terms of mere 
environment. Environment may modify or influence or 
mould but not make a genius or a prophet or a revolutionary 
in the profound sense. Men are born so or not. The creative 
pioneer is what he is in virtue of himself. His environment 
is not decisive for him. For talent, yes; for genius or 
prophecy, no. 

So in all probability the truth about Niebuhr, the Chris- 
tian revolutionary, is that he was born with a mysterious 
potentiality, which became conscious through his Detroit 
experience. His reading and study, whilst of great signifi- 
ance, were really secondary. He read Marx and Engels, for 
instance, because he already was revolutionary in himself. 
The distinctive thing about Niebuhr is not his knowledge, 
though it is great and unusual. What distinguishes him is 
his profound insight. And that does not come from mere 
reading or study, else every M.A. or D.D. would be 
bristling with prophecy. But they are not. Many of them 
are deadly dull and blind as bats. We cannot do better than 
accept the fact that Niebuhr is what he is a Christian 
revolutionary and simply note how he has developed and 
what his activities have been. 

In 1928, Niebuhr accepted the invitation to the chair of 
applied Christian ethics in Union Theological Seminary, 
New York which he still occupies with great distinction. 
It is no exaggeration to say that to-day he is a world figure, 
which is fully attested by two facts. First, that he was invited 


to deliver the GifFord lectures for 1939-40; and second, that 
Oxford University bestowed on him its degree of doctor of 
divinity in June, 1943. Only three other Americans have 
had the honour of being Gifford lecturers, William James, 
Josiah Royce and John Dewey. And it is well known how 
jealously Oxford guards its D.D. degree: it bestows it only 
when it can no longer withhold it which is an excellent 
rule for any university in granting its degrees. Niebuhr's 
Oxford degree is the symbol of his position and influence. 

One of his greatest achievements is that he has invested 
theology with relevance and significance for the contem- 
porary secular mind, a fact which may be illustrated thus. 
During his visit to England in 1943, he met Kingsley Martin, 
editor of the New Statesman and Nation, and J. B. Priestley. 
Niebuhr began to talk politics and sociology, but both 
Mr. Kingsley Martin and Mr. Priestley said that they had 
wanted to meet him, not to talk politics, but to discuss 
religion and theology. Mr. Priestley I do not know. But 
Mr. Kingsley Martin I do know, and I cannot imagine more 
than two professional theologians whom he would wish to 
meet for the purpose of discussing religion. Which demon- 
strates Niebuhr's power to pierce the thickest secular hide. 
There is no theologian to whom the secular "progressives," 
either here or in America, listen with greater attention than 
to Reinhold Niebuhr. Such is the position which he has 
won by long years of activity both as a Christian thinker 
and as a radical politician. 

Since this book is not a study in biography I cannot 
attempt to tell the story of Niebuhr s activity since he 
became professor in 1928. It has been prodigious, both in 
radical politics and in Christian theology. But this brief 
sketch would be incomplete without some account of his 
work for the Fellowship of Socialist Christians in America. 

It was founded in 1936 by a group of radical Christians , of 
whom Niebuhr was one, with the object of correlating 


Christianity and social reconstruction. Its membership is 
still small and represents but a very tiny minority of Ameri- 
can churchmen. But its numbers bear no relation whatever 
to the value of its work and witness. In its ranks are some of 
the ablest Christian thinkers of America. Its best work is 
done by means of its quarterly journal, which was first 
published under the title Radical Religion, later changed to 
Christianity and Society, under which it continues to appear. 
It cannot be said to flourish financially; such serious journals 
never do. But it certainly does flourish intellectually. In its 
pages is to be found the profoundest thinking about the 
problem of the relations of Christianity to society. 

Niebuhr himself edits it, and writes a goodly portion of 
it quarter by quarter. Its outstanding feature is, in fact, the 
editorials on current public questions. It is not too much to 
say that there is nothing like these contributions of Niebuhr's 
in contemporary journalism, most certainly not in con- 
temporary Christian journalism. With very few exceptions, 
commentary on public events in the religious press is but an 
echo of that in the secular press. One looks in vain for inter- 
pretation and commentary distinctively Christian. This is 
what Niebuhr almost alone does. His editorials are, needless 
to say, always well-informed. But more important than the 
reliability and fullness of their information is their profound 
insight. Niebhur does two things. First, he applies Christian 
theology as a dominating principle of social criticism, and, 
second, seeks to indicate the line of Christian action in any 
given situation. He thus redeems theology from the charge 
of being remote and abstract. In his hands, theology is 
endowed with profound social implications. He supplies it 
with a razor edge, which cuts into the pious complacencies 
of bourgeois religion, and into the equally pious com- 
placencies and deep-seated illusions of bourgeois politics, 
both capitalist and socialist. 

Niebuhr is himself an example of the paradox of Christian 


faith; for the disturbing feature of the Christian revolution- 
ary is the combination of orthodox theology with radical 
politics. Right-wing in religion, he is left-wing in politics. 
Niebuhr has helped to kill the idea that theological ortho- 
doxy is necessarily reactionary in social tendency. He has 
recalled it from a false and deadly association. Religious 
orthodoxy has for long been synonymous with dullness, 
unadventurousness, "safety" and privilege. Here in Eng- 
land, orthodoxy in religion has too often been wedded with 
Conservatism and a still more reactionary Liberalism. The 
phrase "high-church toryism" is an indication, and low- 
church toryism is another indication of the same thing. 
Socialists among Anglican evangelicals, for example, are 
very rare. Niebuhr has done much to poleaxe that attitude. 
Theological orthodoxy has profound revolutionary im- 
plications for society. One of the earliest revolts in Niebuhr's 
mind was the revolt against left-wing, progressive, advanced 
theology. His first movement was a movement to the right. 


Movement to the Right 

ONE of the most remarkable features of contemporary 
intellectual life both in England and the United States 
has been the tendency of the most penetrating social critics 
of our civilization to move from a left position in theology 
to the right, from liberalism to orthodoxy. Outstanding 
examples in England are Father Vidler and Canon Demant; 
continental examples are Karl Barth and Nicholas Berdyaev. 
The outstanding American example is Reinhold Niebuhr. 
Among Christian theologians, the profounder the thought, 
the more thorough-going is the movement away from 
liberalism to orthodoxy. The same tendency, in a different 
form, is observable among non-christian thinkers. In their 
case, it is a movement from secular rationalism towards a 
religious hypothesis; an instance is Mr. Aldous Huxley. 
Christian liberalism was partly the expression and partly the 
creator of the simple delusion that it is within the power of 
human nature to create Utopia; that men, in fact, could be 
made Christian by act of parliament and other institutional, 
social action. The tendency, therefore, was for liberals in 
theology to become socialists in politics, with the idea that 
by implementing a socialist programme society would be 
made Christian. That is to say, socialism was the practical 
embodiment of a theoretical Christianity. 

Now when events .began to reveal the hollo wness of this 
too rosy assumption; when it came to be seen that social 
and technical progress was accompanied by a most dis- 
tressing development of hitherto unsuspected evils, there 
emerged the beginnings of a new scepticism about the 
capacity of human nature, which was stimulated by the new 
psychologies of the unconscious. It was this scepticism that 


proved to be the point of departure in a new theological 
development towards the right, a reaction, in fact, in the 
proper meaning of the word. The dawning suspicion that 
technical progress might not, after all, prove to be a straight 
road to Utopia was the terminus a quo for a profound and 
widespread revolt against the whole attitude of Christian, 
or Protestant, liberalism and for a return to orthodoxy, 
especially to orthodox doctrine of sin. The hinge on which 
this whole movement turned was in Niebuhr's case the 
Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, which may 
truthfully be described as the "bovrilization" of the whole 
scheme of Christian sociology. It is the formulation in 
theological terms of man's social, secular development. One 
of the most considerable services of Niebuhr to contempor- 
ary Christian thinking has been the investing of theology, 
and more particularly this doctrine of justification by faith, 
with secular urgency. In the struggle for the correct appre- 
ciation of this dogma, Niebuhr has not spent his energies 
on remote, abstract, ghostly issues which move only in a 
transcendent realm, but on issues which, though trans- 
cendent, also fatally affect the historically decisive problems 
of power, progress and social justice. 

At this point it is necessary to draw the reader's attention 
to a most significant feature in Niebuhr's development as a 
Christian revolutionary. It is this: in the movement away 
from liberal theology Niebuhr did not at the same time 
jettison the social criticism associated with the theology he 
was abandoning; he did not throw away the baby with the 
bath-water. Indeed, the more right he t became in theology, 
the more left he tended to become in politics. What was 
really happening was that his social criticism was becoming 
deeper, more penetrating: it was turning into a criticism of 
the ordinary left social criticism. He became acutely aware 
of the fact that the political left shared the fundamental 
illusions of the political right. His social criticism thus took 


on a deeper hue. It acquired a new motivation, a new 
dimension of perspective, which, in time, led him to a 
distinctive Christian idea, which I may define as the theory 
of the historically permanent revolution which will 
occupy us in the final chapter. 

In this double development, Niebuhr was displaying an 
essential characteristic of Christian thinking. He was, in 
other words, preserving the permanent essence of a tempor- 
ary phase of development. In abandoning the old, outworn 
idea he nevertheless preserved the effect on his mentality 
and attitude of having undergone the process of thinking 
the old idea. A very important point, and a comparatively 
rare accomplishment. That is why so many rebels of twenty- 
one become tories at fifty or sixty. It is because of their 
inability to preserve the ethos, the atmosphere of the idea 
when, at last, they abandon the idea itself. They become as 
though they had never thought an earlier phase at all 
which is disintegration at its worst. It is almost inevitable, 
if a man grows at, all, that he should outgrow the left illu- 
sions of his rebellious youth, though many of the typical 
secular left never do: in their old age they are still milling 
out the ideas and illusions of their callow youth. In a pro- 
found sense the whole secular left, with its tendency to 
totalitarianism, is a case of arrested development, not a 
second childhood but the perpetuation of the first childhood. 
Niebuhr has escaped this pern of arrested development, and 
also the peril of a supine drift into "traditionalism," in other 
words, of becoming a tory at fifty-four. From his contin- 
uous spiritual and intellectual growth he extracts the historic 
essence of the ideas which he no longer can accept as valid. 
Thus, at the pending transition from youth to age, he is a 
responsible revolutionary, in whom tradition and progress 
organically interpenetrate. This achievement has its root 
in his appropriation of the supreme contribution of the 
Protestant reformers -justification by faith. 


From the stubborn and baffling contradiction of human 
experience and history it was perhaps inevitable that 
Niebuhr should turn to the Reformation doctrine. Inherit- 
ing as he did through his family history the traditions of the 
Reformation, it was not an accident that he should find the 
key to the perplexities and problems, which his daily 
experience and thinking imposed upon him, in the con- 
fession of his church. The point here is that it was his social 
passion that dictated his theological development. His 
theology took shape under the pressure of social and 
economic issues. He did not become a theologian through 
the study of systematic theology as an insulated, isolated 
activity. He acquired his theology piece by piece, so to 
speak, as social issues awoke in his mind the need for 
fundamental foothold. Niebuhr's theological development 
began in his attempt to find some satisfactory answer to the 
abysmal problems of human nature. And of all the great 
Christian dogmas, justification by faith is the one most 
directed to human nature. In this dogma he the seeds of every 
other great Christian doctrine. It implies a whole system of 
theology. In it, potentially, are also the doctrines of sin and 
forgiveness, of providence and judgement, of divine crea- 
tion and human freedom, all of which Niebuhr personally 
came to realize under the pressure of a growing social 
problem. He made the paradoxical discovery that the firmest 
foundation for radical politics was a conservative theology, 
that tradition was the surest safeguard of rational progress. 

One of the first problems to oppress him was the terrible 
contrast between "moral man and immoral society," 
between the relatively decent, good behaviour of man as an 
individual, and man as a society, man in the mass. It was 
a problem which defined a problem. The fact of the contrast 
revealed to Niebuhr what he came to regard as the basic 


problem of human nature in historical development. His 
analysis of this contrast led him to the roots of the contra- 
diction of human nature. 

"Individual men may be moral in the sense that they 
are able to consider interests other than their own in 
determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on 
occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to 
their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure 
of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth 
of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy. 
Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice 
which educational discipline may refine and purge of 
egoistic elements until they are able to view a social 
situation, in which their own interests are involved, 
with a fair measure of objectivity. But all these achieve- 
ments are more difficult, if not impossible, for human 
societies and social groups. In every human group 
there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less 
capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to compre- 
hend the need of others and therefore more unrestrained 
egoism than the individuals, who compose the groups, 
reveal in their personal relationships" (Moral Man and 
Immoral Society, pp. xi-xii. Hereinafter referred to as 

In these words, Niebuhr states the fact of the morality of 
man the individual, and the immorality of man the collec- 
tive, and in seeking to formulate and to solve this problem, 
he felt compelled to reject the too shallow assumptions 
about the power of reason to affect the force of egoism. 

"In analysing the limits of reason in morality it is 
important to begin by recognizing 'that the force of 
egoistic impulse is much more powerful than any but 
the most astute psychological analysts and the most 
rigorous devotees of introspection realize. If it is 


defeated on a lower or more obvious level, it will 
express itself in more subtle forms. If it is defeated by 
social impulse it insinuates itself into the social impulse, 
so that a man's devotion to his community always 
means the expression of a transferred egoism as well as 
of altruism. Reason may check egoism in order to fit 
it harmoniously into a total body of social impulse. 
But the same force of reason is bound to justify the 
egoism of the individual as a legitimate element in that 
total body of vital capacities, which society seeks to 
harmonize" (op. cit., pp. 40-41). 

Reason, in other words, becomes unconsciously the 
instrument of egoism. It becomes the agent of egoism under 
the impression that it is transcending it. There is the prob- 
lem. It is this fatal, fundamental incapacity of reason which 
embodies itself in imperialism, in inflated materialism, in 
class exploitation, and also in proletarian resistance and in 
socialist power. 

In this double power of reason, in its capacity to do 
opposite, contradictory things at the same time, Niebuhr 
discovered the clue to the problem of human nature. It lay 
in the fact that man existed in two dimensions of being. At 
one and the same time man was under the dominion of 
nature and also transcended nature. He was both in the 
realm of necessity and in the realm of freedom. He was both 
animal and spirit. 

"The obvious fact is that man is child of nature, subject 
to its vicissitudes, compelled by its necessities, driven 
by its impulses, and confined within the brevity of the 
years which nature permits its varied organic forms, 
allowing them some, but not too much latitude. The 
other less obvious fact is that man is a spirit who stands 
outside of nature, life, himself, his reason and the world. 
This latter fact is appreciated in one or the other of its 


aspects by various philosophies. But it is not frequently 
appreciated in its total import. That man stands outside 
of nature in some sense is admitted even by naturalists 
who are intent upon keeping him as close to nature as 
possible. They must at least admit that he is homofaber, 
a tool-making animal. That man stands outside the 
world is admitted by naturalists who, with Aristotle, 
define man as a rational animal and interpret reason as 
the capacity for making general concepts. But the 
naturalists do not always understand that man's natural 
capacity involves a further ability to stand outside 
himself, a capacity for self-transcendence, the ability 
to make himself his own object, a quality of spirit 
which is usually not fully comprehended or connoted 
in ratio or nous or "reason" or any of the concepts 
which philosophers usually use to describe the unique- 
ness of man" (The Nature and Destiny of Man. 
Vol. I, pp. 3-4. Hereinafter referred to as Gifford 

This analysis of the constitution of human nature in 
history is fundamental in Niebuhr's thought, since it 
involves for him the entire scheme ,of Christian orthodoxy. 
This two-dimensional existence of necessity and freedom, 
of nature and spirit, with its inevitable tension the one 
dimension pulling one way and the other another way 
constituted the environment for sin, on which the whole 
issue of man's historic existence turns. 

"In short, man, being both free and bound, both 
limited and limitless, is anxious. Anxiety is the inevit- 
able concomitant of the paradox of freedom and 
finiteness in which man is involved. Anxiety is the 
internal pre-condition of sin. It is the inevitable 
spiritual state of man, standing in the paradoxical 
situation of freedom and finiteness. Anxiety is the 



internal description of the state of temptation. It must 
not be identified with sin, because there is always the 
ideal possibility that faith would purge anxiety of the 
tendency towards sinful self-assertion. The ideal pos- 
sibility is that faith in the ultimate security of God's 
love would overcome all immediate insecurities of 
nature and history. That is why Christian orthodoxy 
has consistently defined unbelief as the root of sin, or 
as the sin which precedes pride. . . . The freedom from 
anxiety which He [Christ] enjoins is a possibility only 
if perfect trust in divine security has been achieved. 
Whether such freedom from anxiety and such perfect 
trust are actual possibilities of historic exsitence must 
be considered later. For the present it is enough to 
observe that no life, even the most saintly, perfectly 
conforms to the injunction not to be anxious. . . . Yet 
anxiety is not sin. It must be distinguished from sin 
partly because it is its pre-condition and not its actual- 
ity, and partly because it is the basis of all human 
creativity as well as the pre-condition of sin. Man is 
anxious not only because his life is limited and 
dependent and yet not so limited that he does not know 
of his limitations. He is also anxious because he does 
not know the limits of his possibilities. He can do 
nothing and regard it perfectly done, because higher 
possibilities are revealed in each achievement. All 
human actions stand under seemingly limitless pos- 
sibilities. There are, of course, limits but it is difficult 
to gauge them from any immediate perspective. There 
is therefore no limit of achievement in any sphere of 
activity in which human history can rest with equa- 
nimity" (Gifford Lectures, Vol. I, pp. 194-6). 

In this state of anxiety, sin becomes a possibility, and the 
whole point about historic existence is that the possibility 


of sin has been actualized. Man is a sinner, which defines the 
contradiction of human nature and its prolonged and in- 
volved consequences in history. Niebuhr, more than any 
contemporary Christian theologian, has rehabilitated the 
Christian dogma of original sin in present day thinking. 
He has done more than anyone of whom I have knowledge 
to rescue it from the neglect and contempt of a mere secular 
science and philosophy. He has done this, primarily, by 
revealing its profound significance for sociology and the 
philosophy of history. Having seen the secret of the con- 
stitution of human nature in its two-fold dimensionalism, 
he came to see social development as the expression, the 
working-out, of the radical tension of man's being as sin. 
Hence he looked upon the dogma of original sin as funda- 
mental in Christian theology and as absolutely necessary for 
the interpretation of the riddle of man's history. Once he 
saw the profound significance of the dogma, he also came 
to see the absurdity of its denial by liberal theology. " 'If 
we can't find the real cause of social injustice,' said a typical 
modern recently, 'we would be forced to go back to the 
absurd doctrine of original sin.' That remark is a revelation 
of the scientific 'objectivity' of modernity. The Christian 
idea of original sin is ruled out a priori. This is understandable 
enough in a non-christian world. What is absurd is that 
modern Christianity should have accepted this modern 
rejection of the doctrine of original sin with such pathetic 
eagerness and should have spent so much energy in seeking 
to prove that a Christian can be just as respectable and 
modern as a secularist" (Christianity and Power Politics, 
pp. 36-7). In rejecting original sin, liberalism was, in effect, 
suppressing God's Good News to man. 

Niebuhr realized that sin was the unique product of 
man, the distinctive characteristic of self-consciousness. It 
was not the survival of man's animal heritage. Sin 
only becomes possible on the level of spirit. This 


discovery exposed the hollowness of the liberal vision of 
historic progress. 

"In place of it [the Genesis account of the origin of 
evil] we have substituted various accounts of the origin 
and the nature of evil in human life. Most of these 
accounts, reduced to their essentials, attribute sin to the 
inertia of nature, or the hypertrophy of impulses, or to 
the defect of reason (ignorance), and thereby either 
explicitly or implicitly place their trust in developed 
reason as the guarantee of goodness. In all of these 
accounts the essential point in the nature of human evil 
is incised, namely, that it arises from the very freedom 
of reason with which man is endowed. Sin is not so 
much a consequence of natural impulses, which in 
animal life do not lead to sin, as of the freedom by 
which man is able to throw the harmonies of nature out 
of joint. He disturbs the harmony of nature when he 
centres his life about one particular impulse (sex or the 
possessive impulse, for instance) or when he tries to 
make himself, rather than God, the centre of existence. 
This egoism is sin in its quintessential form. It is not a 
defect of nature, but a defect which becomes possible 
because man has been endowed with a freedom not 
known in the rest of Creation" (Beyond Tragedy, 
pp. 10-11). 

Niebuhr's emphasis upon the fact of sin and his analysis 
of its essential character is a decisive demonstration of the 
relation between his theology and his social radicalism, of 
the fortifying of the Christian revolutionary by traditional 
doctrine. It illustrates how his temperamental tendency to 
social revolution is sustained by orthodox dogma; how, in 
fact, he was driven to orthodox theology for the security 
of his revolutionary impulse, so as to establish it on an 
immovable foundation. I will give one more extract from 


Niebuhr's work which seems to me to prove this process 
beyond doubt. 

"The truth is that, absurd as the classical Pauline 
doctrine of original sin may seem to be at first blush, 
its prestige as a part of the Christian truth is preserved, 
and perennially re-established, against the attacks of 
rationalists and simple moralists by its ability to throw 
light upon complex factors in human behaviour which 
constantly escape the moralists [My italics, D. R. D.]. It 
may be valuable to use a simple example of contem- 
porary history to prove the point. Modern religious 
nationalism is obviously a highly explicit expression of 
the collective pride in which all human behaviour is 
involved and which Christian faith regards as the 
quintessence of sin. In so far as this pride issues in specific 
acts of cruelty, such as the persecution of the Jews, these 
acts obviously cannot be defined as riroceeding from a 
deliberate and malicious preference for evil in defiance 
of the good. It is true of course that a modern devotee 
of the religions of race and nation regards his nation as 
the final good more deliberately than a primitive 
tribalist, who merely assumed that his collective life 
was the end of existence. Yet it would be fallacious to 
assume that a nazi gives unqualified devotion to the 
qualified and continued value of his race and nation 
by a consciously perverse choice of the lesser against 
the higher good. But it would be equally erroneous to 
absolve the religious nationalist of responsibility merely 
because his choice is not consciously perverse" (Gifford 
Lectures, Vol. I, p. 264). 

In his endeavour to understand the social problem and, 
consequently, to pursue action about it more effectively, we 
see that Niebuhr was compelled to become a theologian. 
From his analysis of human nature he proceeded to the fact 


of sin, more particularly original sin, which afforded him 
insights into the social situation that inevitably lead him still 
further to the right theologically. Reflection on this total 
fact of sin illumined for him the meaning and inner sig- 
nificance of another stubborn, tragic fact the fact of 
revolutionary frustration, which may be expressed in two 
ways. First, that social change never realizes the aims and 
intentions of its advocates, that, in fact, it frequently results 
in the opposite. Second, that social change, when the new 
situation has crystallized and settled, frequently gives rise 
to other objects which side-track and overlay the original 
aims. This always happens both on the big historic scale, in 
mass revolutionary movements, and in the smaller collective 
conflicts of groups, parties and movements. Original sin 
gave Niebuhr the clue to the correct interpretation of this 
persistent phenomenon, so calamitous in its results. The 
understanding of this, in turn, did something of incalculable 
importance for Niebuhr the revolutionary. It delivered him 
from undue illusions about the process of social development. 
The significance of this fact for Niebuhr's development 
cannot be exaggerated. 

He defined sin, as we have seen, as centralization of the 
ego. The generic term in which this whole process is 
summed up is pride. Anxiety is the soil in which it grows. 
Lack of trust in God leads to the desire to assume control of 
one's own being and that is affirmation of self as central 
and dominant. This pride then operates as a continuously 
corrupting element in every human situation, but more 
especially in collective, institutional development. Whilst in 
the new social forms, the institutional evils of the displaced 
social order are destroyed, the corrupting element of sin in the 
human beings in the new order continues to bedevil all social 
relationships, and consequently tends to frustrate revolu- 
tionary hopes and aspirations. This is one of the most constant 
and basic themes in all Niebuhr's writing and thinking. 


"They [Marxists] imagine that social peace will result 
from the victory of one class over all other classes. They 
have not taken into account that modern capitalism 
produces a formidable middle class the interests of 
which are not identical with the proletarians. Moral 
and spiritual considerations may conceivably prompt 
this class to make common cause with the workers in 
the attainment of ethical social ends, but it will never 
be annihilated even by the most ruthless class conflict 
nor will it be persuaded by the logic of economic facts 
that its interests are altogether identical with those of 
the workers. Even if one class were able to eliminate 
all other classes, which is hardly probable, it would 
require some social grace and moral dynamic to pre- 
serve harmony between the various national groups by 
which this vast 'mass would be organized and into 
which it would disintegrate. Even within one national 
unit any economic class will dissolve into various 
groups, according to varying and sometimes conflicting 
interests as soon as its foes are eliminated. The Russian 
communists were not long able to preserve their 
absolute solidarity after their revolution was firmly 
established" (Does Civilization Need Religion? pp. 

This frustration of the social process by the corrupting 
element of sin inevitably posed the problem of whether 
frustration also meant futility. If human hope and aspiration 
are constantly subject to a process of frustration, isn't history- 
reduced to futility? Isn't the Golden City of man's dream 
in that case a mirage? If all that the social process does is to 
create new forms of injustice, what can be the point of it all? 
Inspiration to pursue the goal is dependent upon illusion, 
upon ignorance or unawareness of the character of human 
nature. When illusion is dissipated, when at last there comes 


realization of the corrupting element at work in man and 
his institutions, and the consequent impotence of the human 
will, inspiration surely dries up, and there follows a paralysis 
of the will-to-struggle. 

That conclusion is inevitable if time and history con- 
stitute the one and only arena of human struggle and 
achievement, and if man has only his own power to depend 
on for the realization of social justice. If these two pro- 
positions are true, then we can write over the portals of time 
what Dante inscribed on the portals of Hell: "Abandon 
hope all ye who enter here." Thus moral and social realism 
demands, if revolution is to be effective, the existence of 
another dimension, another order of being. It demands a 
world transcending time, if social development is to find 
ultimate fulfilment. And it also demands some power other 
than the human will, if the corrupting element in history is 
to be finally overcome. Hence final realization must be the 
result of some reality over and above the process of develop- 
ment. It was exactly at this point that Niebuhr saw the 
profound relevance of the theological ideas and language of 
the great Christian doctrines, especially of justification by 
faith, to the whole of human history. Justification by faith 
affirms that the contradiction of human nature is overcome, 
not by historic development, but by divine action, by the 
free grace of God. The great classic theological terms, 
"reconciliation," "forgiveness," "grace," take on socio- 
logical significance. Social change and revolution are finally 
validated by faith in divine forgiveness. On the sure founda- 
tion of this massive dogma, moral realism and social revolu- 
tion join hands. Realism strengthens and intensifies 

"Mere development of what he now is cannot save 
man, for development will heighten all the con- 
tradictions in which he stands. Nor will emancipation 


from the law of development and the march of time 
through entrance into a timeless and motionless 
eternity save him. His hope consequently lies in a 
forgiveness which will overcome not his finiteness but 
his sin, and a divine omnipotency which will complete 
his life without destroying its essential nature. Hence 
the final expression of hope in the Apostolic Creed, 
'I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of 
the body and the life everlasting,' is a much more 
sophisticated expression of hope in ultimate fulfilment 
than all of its modern substitutes. It grows out of a 
realization of the total human situation which the 
modern mind has not fathomed. The symbols by 
which this hope is expressed are, to be sure, difficult. 
The modern mind imagines that it has rejected the hope 
because of this difficulty. But the real cause of the 
rejection lies in its failure to understand the problem of 
human existence in all its complexity" (Beyond Tragedy, 
p. 306). In short, it lies in the continued entertaining 
by the modern mind of the illusion of human power. 

We are perhaps in a better position now to appreciate the 
paradox that Niebuhr had to move to the right theologic- 
ally, if he was to continue politically and socially left. It was 
orthodox theology that saved him, once he became realist, 
from secular cynicism, which is camouflaged despair. Only 
a theologically orthodox Christian can continue to be a 
revolutionary without illusions about human nature and 
the historic process. Niebuhr is one of the rare company 
that tries to follow Matthew Arnold's friend, who "saw 
life steadily, and saw it whole." He can do that in virtue of 
the power and insight he derives from his Christian faith and 
theology. "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their 
strength . . . they shall walk, and not faint." 


Since this study is in no sense an attempt to estimate the 
place of Niebuhr as a theologian, but purely as a Christian 
revolutionary, as one seeking to bring about fundamental 
social change as much as possible in accordance with 
Christianity, I am not endeavouring to give an account of 
his theology as a system. I summarize it in as far as it is a 
direct factor in his social attitude which is very far indeed. 
So far the vital influence of theology upon his revolutionary 
activity is summed up, as we have already argued, in the 
doctrine of justification by faith, which has been discussed 
simply for its sociological significance. This is not to say that 
Niebuhr is concerned with that doctrine only for its 
sociology. That would be a perverse misrepresentation of 
his position. The Reformers rested the whole weight of the 
destiny of the individual upon that doctrine, and. so does 
Niebuhr, as a study of his GifFord lectures amply and clearly 
demonstrates. But here we are engaged only upon its 
application to a social problem. It solved for him the 
baffling problem of the contradiction of man's situation in 
history. We have now to examine how Niebuhr solved the 
problem of making revolution significant, of the relation 
between historic frustration and spiritual fulfilment. This 
involves the whole problem of the destiny of man both as 
individual and society, which presents itself first as the 
question: What is the final purpose of the whole historic 

This is the point at which the first great distinction 
emerges between the Christian revolutionary and the 
secular revolutionary; between, shall we say, Lenin and 
Niebuhr. It is but rarely that secular revolutionary theory 
takes any account of ultimate problems, of questions of final 
destiny. Neither Marx nor Engels ever got nearer to them 
than vague, romantic generalizations. 


The question of final destiny which is never explicitly 
formulated in secular theory must, therefore, be sought for 
in the implications of theory. The concrete historical situa- 
tions envisaged by secular revolutionaries, particularly by 
Marx and Engels, imply, at every point, an unformulated 
view of final destiny, between which and the consciously, 
systematically defined Christian view there is a gulf, which 
no amount of desperate "interpenetration of opposites" by 
Christian Marxists (that strange breed!) can ever bridge. 
But it seems that the following affirmations can be justly 
made about the secular-revolutionary view of final purpose. 

(a). At its best and it is by its best it should be judged 
the final purpose of this vision seems to be the maximum 
development of the personal gifts and talents of the in- 
dividual personality. The secular revolutionary conceives 
a system of society which will give opportunity for the 
individual to achieve full self-expression, to develop all of 
which he is capable. Society is the highest reality (or 
entity) of human existence. Secular-revolutionary theory 
never looks beyond mankind. Self-realization is the goal of 

(b). The realization of this final purpose will be effected 
within time and history. In this view, time is an absolute. 

Niebuhr's opposition to all this was so radical that it 
involved all the essentials of orthodox Christian eschatology. 
In effect, he found in the orthodox doctrines of "the last 
things" his philosophy of history, so much so in fact that 
they constituted the keystone, the essential idea, of his whole 
system of belief. Speaking of the rejection, in his student 
days, of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body and of 
the theological changes in subsequent years, he writes, "Yet 
some of us have been persuaded to take the stone which 
we then rejected and make it the head of the corner. In other 
words, there is no part of the Apostolic Creed which, in 
our present opinion, expresses the whole genius of the 


Christian faith more neatly than just this despised phrase: 
'I believe in the resurrection of the body ' " (op. tit., p. 290). 

The supreme purpose of the historic process in the secular 
view becomes, according to Niebuhr, a by-product, so to 
speak, the fruit or consequence of another, prior purpose. 
Christianity teaches that man's chief purpose is to glorify 
God, to be obedient to his will, to be in perfect filial fellow- 
ship with him. An effect of that fellowship with God, the 
relationship to him, is that men will enjoy self-realization. 
The satisfaction for which the human ego craves in its 
artificial centrality is to be found only in a relationship of 
subordination to and dependence upon God. "Seek ye first 
the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these 
things shall be added unto you." Seek first the right re- 
lationship to God, out of which self-realization will come 
as a spontaneous, organic growth; give "glory to God in the 
highest," not "glory to man in the highest." Modern 
civilization is, in fact, the attempt to create by independent 
human will what the Kingdom of God grants to a mankind 
rightly dependent upon God. 

The complete realization of this purpose for all mankind 
lies beyond time and history altogether. The fulfilment of 
the historic process is beyond history. This view is funda- 
mental in all Niebuhr's thinking. On no theme is he more 
profound in his thought or more eloquent in his statement. 
It is here, too, that the cleavage between Christian revolu- 
tionary theory and secular theory is evident and deepest; 
where the two attitudes are utterly irreconcilable. History 
is inevitably an arena of frustration, of incompleteness. The 
goal of all human striving lies in another dimension. History, 
in its totality, moves toward the end, in the sense of finis, 
as history, in its successive phases, ends. But the final end 
(finis) of history will also, says Niebuhr, be identified with 
the end as fulfilment, telos. The essential affirmation of 
orthodox Christian eschatology is that the end of history 


(as finis) will coincide with the end as telos, fulfilment. "The 
culmination of history must include not merely the divine 
completion of human incompleteness but a purging of 
human guilt and sin by divine judgement and mercy." 

The Kingdom of God is itself the fulfilment of history, 
which is apprehended in secular thought by partial and 
distorting conceptions and ideas, such as "an age of plenty," 
"perpetual world peace," "brotherhood of man," "world 
federation," "classless society." These, in fact, are the 
expression of the fundamental human sin of "the very effort 
of men to solve this problem by their own resources." But 
the Kingdom of God has already come into history in Christ. 
The end of history (as telos) has preceded the end as finis. 
This is the supreme paradox of Christian faith. "... the 
Kingdom of God as it has come in Christ means a disclosure 
of the meaning of history but not the full realization of that 
meaning. That is anticipated in the Kingdom which is to 
come, that is, in the culmination of history. It must be 
remembered that a comprehension of the meaning of life 
and history from the stand-point of the Christian revelation 
includes an understanding of the contradictions of that 
meaning in which history is perennially involved" (Gifford 
Lectures, Vol. II, pp. 297-8). 

Niebuhr comprehends the fulfilment of the whole historic 
process in the threefold biblical symbolism of the Parousia 
(the second coming of Christ), the Last Judgement, and the 
Resurrection, which he has systematically discussed in the 
second volume of his GifFord lectures (pages 297 to 332). 
Here one can attempt but the briefest summary. 

The Parousia. In the hope of the return of Christ is affirmed 
the ultimate identity of righteousness and power, that in the 
end God will overcome all evil. It is the assertion of the con- 
viction that the love of God is omnipotent. In the process of 
historic development, the omnipotence of love manifests itself 
as power to endure the defiance of sin. But that same power. 


to endure will, in the end (finis and telos] reveal itself as 
power to abolish and dissipate sin. That is to say, the final 
disappearance of sin will be the logical conclusion of the 
endurance of sin in time and history. Capacity to endure in 
history becomes power to banish in the end. "The vindica- 
tion of Christ and his triumphant return is therefore an 
expression of faith in the sufficiency of God's sovereignty 
over the world and history, and in the final supremacy of 
love over all the forces of self-love which defy, for the 
moment, the inclusive harmony of all things under the 
will of God." There will come a point at which the principle 
of contradiction in history, by which all new achievements 
in human order are corrupted and disputed, will be over- 
come. There will come a point I use this word "point" 
rather than the word "moment" or "time" when justice 
will cease to breed new injustice, when "all things according 
well shall make one music as before." 

The Last Judgement. The Last Judgement, says Niebuhr, 
enshrines three basic ideas of the Christian philosophy of 
history. It states that since Christ himself will be the judge, 
history will be judged by the ideal possibility which has 
already been known in history. On this point he quotes 
Augustine so strikingly that I cannot forbear quoting in 
turn: "God the Father will in his [Christ's] personal 
presence judge no man, but he has given his judgement to 
his Son who shall show himself as a man to judge the world, 
even as he showed himself as a man to be judged of the 
world." History in its totality, will be judged by the 
absolute possibility which man perceived in the relative 
situations of historic development. It will be finally evalu- 
ated, judged i.e., admitted as true by the "ought," by 
the ideal possibility which, though appearing in history, 
nevertheless always stood above history. The Last Judge- 
ment, that is to say, will be congruent with the manifesta- 
tions of historic judgement. 


The second of the basic ideas is the justification of the 
historic distinction between good and evil. While the 
particular relative distinctions between right and wrong may 
have been confused and unjust in the actual historical situa- 
tion, that there was an actual distinction to be made will 
become manifest in the culmination of history. In social 
revolution, the interests of transcendent righteousness 
paradoxically join hands with egocentric interestsybr a time, 
so that the revolutionary is (mostly) an unconscious instru- 
ment of Providence. The distinction between good and evil 
in the actual concrete situation, however partially and 
wrongly its content may be perceived, is nevertheless 
absolute. Hence the Last Judgement affirms that the historic 
process is essentially moral. "Morality is the nature of 
things" (Bishop Butler). 

The third idea symbolized in the Last Judgement is the 
denial of any possibility that history can fulfil or complete 
itself. The achievements of history, its progressions, do not 
constitute stages, so to speak, of the Kingdom of God. The 
historic process is not the Kingdom of God by instalments. 
Each stage or instalment is marred by the corrupting ele- 
ment of man's self-affirmation. Fulfilment comes from God 
at the end, yet is nevertheless related to the whole process 
of history. The Last Judgement is the unambiguous, 
absolute affirmation of man's incapacity to fulfil history 

Our little systems have their day, 
They have their day and cease to be. 
They are but broken lights of Thee 
\nd '. 

And Thou, O Lord, art more than they. 

A "broken light" gives sufficient light, not to see, but to 
"mis-see." It gives a semi-darkness in which objects are 
distorted to the vision. "Now we see as in a glass, darkly." 
"The idea of a 'Last' Judgement expresses Christianity's 


refutation of all conceptions of history, according to which 
it is its own redeemer and is able by the process of growth 
and development to emancipate man from the guilt and 
sin of his existence, and to free him from judgement." . 

The Resurrection. The symbolism of the resurrection of 
the body is, undoubtedly, the one which has called forth the 
greatest contempt of the modern secular mind, and the one 
about which liberal Christianity has felt most ashamed. 
Niebuhr insists that it is a symbol, which like all other 
symbols, can be made to appear ridiculous when clothed in 
a rational form. But its significance is profound; for it 
affirms nothing less than the redemption of history in its 
entirety. What will be validated is the whole man, the unity 
of body and spirit, not man levitated into a bloodless soul 
merely. "On the one hand, it [the Resurrection] implies 
that eternity will fulfil and not annul the richness and variety 
which the temporal process has elaborated. On the other 
hand it implies that the condition of fmiteness and freedom, 
which lies at the basis of historical existence, is a problem 
for which there is no solution by any human power. Only 
God can solve this problem." This symbol affirms, in other 
words, that nothing gained in historical development will 
be wasted or lost, which is what happens in history only too 
frequently. The predominant personal relationships of 
feudal society have been almost entirely lost in capitalist 
society. As Marx puts it so eloquently in the Communist 
Manifesto, "Wherever the bourgeoisie has risen to power, 
it has destroyed all feudal, patriarchal, and idyllic relation- 
ships. . . .It has degraded personal dignity to the level of 
exchange value." And as the Marxists have not said, socialist 
society, if Russia is any criterion, will throw away the 
capitalist gain of individual liberty. The symbol of the 
resurrection of the body states a law of the moral uniformity 
of historical development that no value gained in the 
process will be lost "or cast as rubbish to the void." 


Thus Niebuhr, in his endeavour to validate the radical, 
revolutionary attitude, discovered that he had to move to 
the right. The great slogan in America in the early nine- 
teenth century was "Go west, young man." The slogan 
uttered to Niebuhr by the spirit of prophecy was "Go 
'right,' young man," which he did, as we have seen, with a 
vengeance. His movement rightwards had startling results 
in that it made of him a very rare kind of revolutionary, as 
we shall endeavour to see more fully in the concluding part 
of this study. He was, in all probability, a revolutionary by 
instinct; to put it in the language of religion, a revolutionary 
by a divine call. In order to remain where he was on the 
left he had to go right. On the impregnable foundation 
of a traditional theology, he has reared a revolutionary social 
theory. By a profound biblical Christian dialectic, his 
movement to the right involved him in a movement to the 
left but the left on to which he moved differed "more 
than somewhat" from the left of secular theory. 


Movement to the Left 

TT has become a commonplace to say nowadays that there 
Jl can be no revolution without a theory. Part of the great- 
ness of Lenin was his realization of this simple but dramatic 
necessity which Marx first made clear. Marx's jibe at 
Bakunin, the old Russian anarchist, has become famous. 
Bakunin, he said, was always mistaking the third month 
(of the pregnancy of the revolution) for the ninth. Bakunin 
lacked a theory. Lenin, on the contrary, correctly diagnosed 
the existence of a revolutionary situation in 1917, though he 
was the only one to do so. 1 

Whether Marxist theory is an infallible guide to recogni- 
tion of the revolutionary "moment" is, at least, arguable. 
But there can be no doubt that the first job of the revolu- 
tionary is interpretation of events as elements in a develop- 
ing situation. And this is pre-eminently what Niebuhr does. 
Is it fantastic to suggest that the word "revolutionary" is 
a translation into secular terminology of the religious, 
theological word "prophet"? And is "revolutionary theory" 
a secular version of "prophetic insight"? There is much to 
suggest that Marx's theory was much more the product of 
his heart than his head; that its service was prophetic rather 
than rational. It was insight much more than it was ratiocina- 
tion. It is certain, however, that Niebuhr reveals extra- 
ordinary insight into the meaning of events in our time, and 
that interpretation of the social situation constitutes a very 

1 My friend J. T. Murphy, who knew Lenin well, once told me that 
Lenin said to him that "he was in a minority of one" in his insistence 
that the moment for the seizure of power by the bolsheviks had arrived 
in October 1917. 


large and profoundly important part of his activities as a 
Christian revolutionary. And as an interpreter, he is certainly 
far to the left of conventional ecclesiastical judgement of 

Rather than attempt a summary of Niebuhr's social and 
political judgements, which would inevitably be colourless 
and bald, let me endeavour to define the principles of these 
judgements, which perhaps will illustrate his move to the 
left more satisfactorily. With the aid of these principles, 
readers can then turn to Niebuhr's books; for the only 
justification of such a study as this is to direct the reader to 
Niebuhr himself. 1 

I would formulate these principles thus: (a) The relative 
character of all historical situations and judgements; (b) The 
absolute (or eternal) significance of the relative historical 

Consistent with the dialectical quality of all Niebuhr's 
thinking, these two principles partake of the nature of 
paradox, and comprehend, in essence, the entire field of his 
application of Christian faith to society. 

First, then, the relative character of all historical situations 
and judgements. 

^ One of the abiding common characteristics of all secular 
revolutionaries is the tendency to think of their own 

1 Whilst everything that Niebuhr writes exemplifies his social and 
political theory, I may instance as particularly relevant the following: 
Reflections on the End of an Era, Christianity and Power Politics , Moral Man 
and Immoral Society. The reader should also pay attention to chapters 
four, five and six of An Interpretation of Christian Ethics and the second 
volume of the Gifford lectures. His editorials in the quarterly journal of 
the Fellowship of Socialist Christians, Christianity and Society, are also of 
first-class importance. (Obtainable by annual subscription of five shillings 
through the Student Christian Movement Press). 


revolutionary achievement as final. They tend to lose any 
awareness if they ever possessed it that their achievement 
partakes fully of the defect and partiality of all historic 
movements. They never think that their creation will ever 
have to be undone; they assume that their aims, when at 
last they are realized, have a final significance for history. 
In other words, their revolutionary achievements are an 
absolute gain for the class or society they represent. Revolu- 
tionaries hardly ever manifest any doubts about the signific- 
ance of their achievements, which henceforth become some- 
thing to be exploited to the maximum of their power. 
Having conquered, their triumph has but to be applied. 
They harbour no doubts about the adequacy of the instru- 
ment for the realization of the aims to which they have 
devoted themselves. We never find, on the morrow of 
successful revolution, that the revolutionary shows any 
awareness that his very success may be the beginning of 
defeat of his purpose. 

Now this psychology of the secular revolutionary is 
natural and almost inevitable. It is beyond the power of 
human nature to doubt the thing to which it is most 
passionately committed. How can we expect men who have 
suffered and endured everything for their cause to believe 
that, in the triumph of that for which they have laboured, 
is concealed the seed of frustration and defeat? If revolution- 
ary human nature were capable of rising to such heights of 
objectivity, history would have developed very differently. 
But it is clear that revolutions never realize purely the aim 
of their architects. In every revolutionary triumph there is 
a corrupting element at work, which frequently ordains 
that the revolution becomes an instrument to defeat its own 
original aims. It destroys historic forms only to embody the 
content, the substance of the old forms in new historic 
forms. The French Revolution certainly destroyed the bonds 
of feudal society. But it most certainly did not achieve its 


threefold aim in a single one of its particulars. Bourgeois 
inequalities replaced feudal inequalities. 

Now the outstanding characteristic of Niebuhr as a 
revolutionary is his awareness of precisely this omnipresent 
element of corruption in the whole historic process and 
therefore in revolutionary movements. All revolutionaries 
can sense this element in the movements which they oppose. 
The greatness of Niebuhr is that he senses it in the move- 
ments which he champions. There can be no doubt that, 
on the whole, Niebuhr is fundamentally more in sympathy 
with Marxism than with liberalism, in spite of the shock 
which Soviet policies since 1935 have occasioned him. But 
he is as clearly aware of the corruption in Marxism as he is 
of that in liberalism. His awareness of this element is so 
acute that he detects its operation in all movements of 
emancipation, with which movements his sympathies and 
passions overwhelmingly he. In his Reflections on the End of 
an Era he says: 

"The executors of judgement in history are always 
driven by both hunger and dreams, by both the passions 
of warfare and the hope for a city of God. ... To put 
the matter in terms of specific history: The cruelties of 
Czardom are avenged by the furor of a communism 
which so mixes creative and moral elements in its 
enterprise with so many primeval passions and so many 
of the old cruelties inverted that only a very objective 
and sympathetic observer can discern what is good in 
the welter or what is evil. It must therefore always be 
the purpose of those who try, in a measure, to guide 
the course of history to check the desperate brutalities 
of a dying civilization in order that the new which 
emerges may not be too completely corrupted and 
blinded by the spirit of vengeance. . . . tn brief, the 
judges of history are always barbarians, whether they 


be Teutonic hordes, beating at the gates of Rome, 
medieval tradesmen and townsmen whose commercial 
argosies destroyed the power of the lord in his castle, 
or modern proletarians, intent on an equalitarian and 
collectivist society." 

In short, whilst Niebuhr is objectively committed to one 
side in the social conflict, he, nevertheless, is subjectively 
impartial in that he is clearly aware of the corrupting ele- 
ment at work in both sides of the revolutionary debate. 

The thoroughness of Niebuhr's prophetic perception in 
this respect is proved by his clear-eyed criticism of the 
churches in their judgement in social problems. He is 
unsparing in his vision of the Protestant and Roman 
Catholic Churches alike. The great source of self-deception 
in the churches, according to Niebuhr, lies precisely in their 
too simple judgements, in their failure to perceive the 
relative character of every historical situation, including 
their own. Every affirmation of Christianity in social action 
is partial, relative and mixed, in that it is compounded of 
some vested interest of the Church. It was on this ground 
that he criticized the Vatican in its apparent attitude to the 
civil war in Spain. Niebuhr vigorously exposed the claim 
that Franco and the rebels were defending Christianity. The 
elements of power and vested property interests were too 
mixed up with a genuine concern for Christian faith to 
admit of so simple a judgement. In a similar way, he 
criticizes the varieties of Protestant Christianity, of which 
his analysis of Buchmanism is as good an example as any. 
"The Oxford Group Movement," he writes, "imagining 
itself the mediator of Christ's salvation in a catastrophic age, 
is really an additional evidence of the decay in which we 
stand. Its religion manages to combine bourgeois complac- 
ency with Christian contrition in a manner which makes the 
former dominant. Its morality is a religious expression of a 


decadent individualism. Far from offering us a way out of 
our difficulties it adds to the general confusion. This is not 
the Gospel's message of judgement and hope to the world. 
It is bourgeois optimism, individualism and moralism 
expressing itself in the guise of religion" (Christianity and 
Power Politics, p. 156). 

The conclusion at which Niebuhr arrives is that final 
solutions of social problems are impossible in human history. 
All solutions are necessarily partial, incomplete and 
dynamically imperfect. That is to say, every solution, 
whether achieved by revolutionary means or not, gives rise 
to a new form of the particular problem. Every historical 
situation is relative. It always remains under the judgement 
of the absolute ideal, which defies every attempt at complete 

Revolutionaries have always been intolerant. But it makes 
all the difference in the world whether intolerance is looked 
upon and felt as a virtue or a sin. If it be regarded as a virtue 
the corrupting element in every revolution operates without 
check or inhibition. If it is felt to be a sin, then the corrupting 
element operates under some sort of control. Now. the 
great historic significance of Niebuhr's insight into the 
relativity of all historical situations and judgements is 
precisely that it brings this tendency to intolerance and its 
consequent brutality under moral judgement. Revolutions, 
of which there is going to be a rich crop in the post-war 
world, will be less likely to stultify their historic mission if 
the revolutionaries who engineer and guide them will be 
men labouring under a sense of guilt for their extravagance 
and intolerance. Europe will suffer less if its future explosions 
are in the hands of Cromwells rather than Lenins or Stalins. 
Can anyone imagine Stalin, for instance, saying "I beseech 
you, comrades, in the bowels of The Dialectic, think it 
possible you may be mistaken"? Given this insight, which is 
characteristic of Niebuhr's whole attitude, revolutionaries 


would acquire a sense of guilt to the infinite blessing of a 
tortured humanity. 

There is, secondly, the opposite principle: Every relative 
historical situation has an absolute significance. In other 
words, no judgement of a historical situation is adequate, 
unless it is viewed against the background of an order higher 
than history. History cannot be fully interpreted in terms 
only of itself. 

Niebuhr came to understand that it is Christian theology 
which alone makes history rational; that if the meaning of 
history is to be sought only within the historic process itself, 
then it is just meaningless. A dispassionate survey of the 
history of civilizations, whatever else it may do, cannot 
possibly fortify optimism or faith in the possibility of final 
achievement. Historic development is, among other things, 
a terrible process of disillusionment and frustration of man's 
hopes and dreams. We might consider the example of war. 
So far from being a modern dream, the vision of a warless 
world is one of the most ancient in human thought, and 
persists in face of cumulative disappointment. All the great 
wars in modern history have been, in the minds of the 
people, wars to end war. That was the promise of the 
French revolutionary wars. But nearly 3,000 years ago a 
great prophet and reformer saw a world in which swords 
had been beaten into plowshares, and every man enjoyed 
the security of his own home and work. Three thousand 
years are a very long time. If human hope is to be sustained 
so one would assume wars during that period should 
have declined both in frequency and intensity, even if they 
had not disappeared. But in fact they have increased. 
2,700 years after the prophet Micah dreamed his noble 
dream, we are beating our pots and pans into bombers. 
War is threatening to do to-day what it could not have done 


3,000 years ago destroy whole communities and nations 
Looking at the story of war and peace in terms of history 
alone does not encourage belief in the possibility of universal 
peace, but the exact opposite. If history be the only sphere, 
Moltke was quite right: peace is a dream. The tired waves 
which vainly break on the shores of man's existence in time 
and space not only do not seem their painful inch to gain; 
they do not, in fact, gain an inch. On the contrary, they have 
receded miles. The contemplation of history alone paralyses 
the will. If 3,000 years of struggling, preaching, propaganda 
result in bigger and more frequent wars, what hope can one 
reasonably entertain if history be the only factor? 

The situation is no more encouraging if we think of 
human happiness and welfare in general: we have only to 
contrast the reality of to-day with past anticipations. If 
history is man's only reference, how bleak the prospect, 
how utterly meaningless the whole story: to fight, to create, 
to toil, to dream that at the end we may compete with the 
Gadarene swine in the swiftness of descent. If history be the 
boundary of man's vision, there is no inspiration whatever 
to spur men on in revolutionary struggle. 

Niebuhr, as well as seeing the partial, relative character 
of history, sees the passing situation, with all its contradic- 
tion, against a super-historic backbround. This vision he 
derives from Christian orthodoxy. His revolutionary spirit 
is fed by theology. The frustrations, stultifications, denials 
of historic development are all disciplinary elements in 
fulfilment beyond time altogether. Given this hope of a 
transcendent fulfilment, the historic, the time-process 
becomes meaningful. Its irrationality becomes the overtone 
of an undercurrent rational theme. Hence there is value in the 
process,, and not only in the goal. Man can travel hopefully. 

Niebuhr's theological view of the historic process as 
having absolute significance is fortified by the fact that, 
where it is denied, one of two things happens. Either some 


substitute view is attempted as an inferior equivalent, or man 
falls back on materialism in sheer despair. Marx, of course, 
denied altogether the Christian hope of transcendental 
fulfilment. He is therefore compelled to anticipate fulfil - 
ment in time, which he does, not on scientific historical 
evidence (which is hostile), but on myth or "faith." He 
assumes the inevitability of historic fulfilment. In fact, 
however, Marx's conclusion disappears into non-history. 
When at long last the state will have withered away, class 
conflict will cease altogether and with it will go the famous 
dialectic. Communist society will have no tension. But this 
is not history. It is eschatology transposed into the time-key. 
The secular alternative to this is crude, vitalistic materialism, 
of which Spengler affords a fitting example in his learned 
but meretricious Decline of The West wherein, confining 
himself to history, he is driven to the appalling conclusion 
that civilization is the blind expression of power. All anti- 
theological interpretations of historic development are a 
variation (with modification) on either secularized escha- 
tology or on the crudest materialist vitalism. Marx, 
Spengler, Niebuhr these three names typify the varieties 
of the possible views of historical meaning. Niebuhr's view 
of the absolute significance of the historical situation com- 
bines realism towards the facts with a dynamic will to 
struggle and to hope. 

"Moral life is possible at ah 1 only in a meaningful 
existence. Obligation can only be felt to some system of 
coherence and some ordering will. Thus moral obliga- 
tion is always an obligation to promote harmony 
and to overcome chaos. But every conceivable order 
in the historical world contains an element of 
anarchy. Its world rests upon contingency and 
caprice. The obligation to support and enhance it can 
therefore only arise and maintain itself upon the basis 


of a faith that it is the partial fruit of a deeper unity 
and the promise of a more perfect harmony than is 
revealed in any immediate situation. If a lesser faith 
than this prompts moral action, it results in precisely 
those types of moral fanaticism which impart un- 
qualified worth to qualified values and thereby destroy 
their qualified worth. The prophetic faith in a God who 
is both the ground and the ultimate fulfilment of 
existence, who is both the creator and the judge of the 
world, is thus involved in every moral situation. 
Without it the world is seen rather to be meaningless 
or as revealing unqualifiedly good and simple meanings. 
In either case, the nerve of moral action is ultimately 
destroyed. The dominant attitudes of prophetic faith 
are gratitude and contrition; gratitude for Creation 
and contrition before Judgement; or, in other words, 
confidence that life is good in spite of its evil and that 
it is evil in spite of its good. In such a faith both senti- 
mentality and despair are avoided. The meaningfulness 
of life does not tempt to premature complacency and 
the chaos which always threatens the world of meaning 
does not destroy the tension of faith and hope in which 
all moral action is grounded" (An Interpretation of 
Christian Ethics, pp. 115-16). 

In accordance with all Niebuhr's thinking, his movement 
towards the left is also dialectical i.e., it is a tension 
between two apparently opposite principles. First, he denies 
the possibility of absolute achievement in any historical 
situation, but, second, he nevertheless affirms a more than 
relative significance in each historical situation, since his 
perception of the situation is in terms of an order trans- 
cending it. 


Niebuhr's "revolutionism" (may I be pardoned for this 
word), which has driven him to the left in politics, is a 
necessary consequence of his view that history is dynamic, 
which again, in turn, is the result of his biblical view of the 
character of human nature. The core and essence of this 
view is that man is a unity of vitality and reason, which is 
the source of tension and conflict in all social relations. Urge 
and stimulus do not reside in reason, but in will, in the 
vitalities. Hence history can never "stay put." All achieve- 
ments become the springboard for a new drive. Social 
growth via conflict is moralized as a struggle for justice. And 
it is as a champion of justice that Niebuhr has displayed his 
revolutionary attitude. The most important part of his 
activity in this respect is, in my judgement, his work as 
prophetic interpreter of the social scene, which he does 
through his books, his journalism, his preaching and lectur- 
ing in the United States and also here in Great Britain. 

As Niebuhr came to theological clarity and maturity 
he found himself in a hostile environment hostile in the 
sense that he was in opposition to the established theological 
and social traditions of the American churches. The United 
States was the land of the most strongly entrenched capital- 
ism in the whole world. Many of the most powerful and 
wealthy capitalists were prominent church members, whose 
work was largely financed by the big contributions and 
bequests of these capitalists. This fact was a considerable 
influence in the formation of the individualist and capitalist 
character of American Christianity. "Where your treasure 
is, there will your heart be also." It is most difficult to be 
objective towards institutions on which we depend for our 
income and existence. Besides, the United States had come 
to full national self-consciousness and greatness through the 
capitalist system and ideology, which had been immensely 


strengthened by the fact of the frontier "America was a 
land of limitless opportunity for everybody." All this was 
reflected in the predominantly liberal, optimist theology of 
the American Protestant churches. However divided they 
were on matters of doctrine, order and ritual, they were 
pretty well at one in their social outlook. It was this out- 
look to which Niebuhr found himself in opposition. 

It speaks volumes for the reality of democratic freedom in 
the United States that Niebuhr could publicly criticize the 
fundamentals of American social Christianity and, at the 
same time, be invited to occupy one of the most influential 
positions in American church life. Before the war of 1939 
it had become the fashion to sneer at freedom as it operated 
in capitalist democracies. This was a Marxist achievement. 
"Bourgeois freedom" was a hollow sham, and so on. But 
bitter experience has taught us a sobering lesson. We know 
to-day that even "capitalist freedom" is precious, and much 
to be preferred to the slavery which has been clamped down 
on culture and politics in Germany and Russia. It^was a 
great thing that, in Niebuhr's case, the men who chiefly 
paid the piper did not call the tune. The tune played by 
Niebuhr was a fundamental criticism of the accepted 
ideology and tradition. By the written and the spoken word, 
he trained a constant battery of fire on the hallowed assump- 
tions and values of American Christianty. But not only of 
American Christianity. 

No single thinker has done more that Niebuhr to reveal 
the bankruptcy of secular illusions and ideals in our time. 
If it is true, as Professor Grant says, that "all revolutions 
begin in the minds of men," then Niebuhr is in the front 
rank of contemporary revolutionaries, Christian or secular. 
By his acute and profound analysis of events and institutions, 
by his bold and powerful application of Christian theological 
orthodoxy to secular processes and affairs, Niebuhr has 
done a great deal to undermine confidence in secular ideas 


and ideals. For thirty years he has poured forth a steady 
stream of illuminating social criticism from pulpit and 
professorial chair; by books which have been read through- 
out two continents; and by weighty and solid periodical 
journalism. The importance of all this work cannot be 
measured and certainly cannot be over-estimated. One 
evidence of its value is that Niebuhr is the Christian the- 
ologian most quoted by secular sociologists and publicists 
both in the United States and Great Britain to-day. Niebuhr 
has done all this work, not as a bookish recluse, but as a 
practical man immersed in daily contacts with average 
humanity. His movement to the left has shaken loose 
American Christianity from its attachment to the right. He 
is a standing witness to the power of the individual in a 
world that is being strangled by organization. 


The Christian Revolutionary in Being 

HAVING at one time been saturated by Hegelian dialectic, 
first in its pure form and later in its inverted Marxist 
form, I confess that I find it difficult to disengage my mind 
completely from dialectic. The penalty of this baptism by 
total immersion is that one tends to see dialectic where 
possibly it doesn't exist. Perhaps, therefore, it is somewhat 
fanciful or more than somewhat, as Niebuhr's fellow 
countryman, Damon Runyon, would say to see the 
ubiquitous curse of dialectic in the development of Reinhold 
Niebuhr. Let the reader then treat this as a bit of light relief. 
In Niebuhr's movement to the right, behold the thesis. In 
his movement to the left, behold the antithesis. And in the 
Christian revolutionary in being there is the synthesis! 
Right-wing theology and left-wing politics, having duly 
interpenetrated each other, merge into the grand negation 
of the negation to achieve a positive balanced person. But 
this presentation of Niebuhr is not all nonsense, though a 
great deal of it most certainly is. 

Niebuhr is a theologian. It is most necessary to insist on 
this point, because it has a most important bearing on any 
evaluation of Niebuhr's place and significance. He is a 
theologian but a theologian with a difference. He is a 
"throw-back" I dare not use the word "reactionary" to 
the medieval Catholic and early Reformation tradition of 
theology. In modern, post-reformation theology, the word 
"theologian" has shrunk into a narrower connotation. It 
has come to mean one whose materials of thought are 
ecclesiastical experiences, religious experience in the specific 
sense of a reference of thought, will and feeling, separate 
from the rest of life. The word has come to connote one who 


is concerned with the intellectual presentation of a field of 
experience separate from the rest of life, as an artist pursuing 
a specialist activity. Now in an earlier tradition theology 
was regarded as the religious aspect of the whole of life. 
This was the character which Aquinas, for instance, bore as 
a theologian. He examined the religious aspect of what we 
to-day think of as purely secular activity. But in Aquinas's 
day theology was "the queen of the sciences," and therefore 
laid all the sciences under toll. The reformers were in the 
same tradition, more aggressively, which means that the 
tradition of treating theology as the religious aspect of 
universal experience was beginning to disintegrate. Political 
activity and theorizing was as familiar an element in 
Reformation theology as mystical, religious experience in 
the narrower sense of the word. 

It is this tradition which Niebuhr has done so much to 
recover, to the undoubted advantage of theological thinking 
to-day. He combines religious thought per se with secular 
sociological thought. His work is a genuine synthesis of the 
two, and in so doing he has greatly deepened the whole 
concept of revolution. He has uncovered a deeper dimension 
in revolutionary thought and activity. He shows that, 
beneath the political surface of the revolutionary process, 
there is a moral theological activity. Revolution, which is 
an affair of men, is still more an affair of divine Providence. 
To put the same thing in another way, Niebuhr's work as a 
theologian is concerned largely with the religious implica- 
tions of economic, political and social theory and practice. 
One of the first things that impressed me about him was 
that here was a theologian who, obviously, had a thorough 
knowledge of revolutionary, political theory, a combin- 
ation which to me at that time was a striking novelty. 
Equipped as he was with the usual religious study, in the 
narrower sense of the term, he was additionally equipped 
with a thorough knowledge of secular sociology. 


This is the synthesis which Niebuhr has achieved be- 
tween professional religious knowledge and secular socio- 
logical theory. It is this which constituted his fine equip- 
ment as a Christian revolutionary. It is this, too, which 
endows him with so much authority and significance in an 
age of social disintegration. It is this that marks him as a 
mature Christian revolutionary in being. 

Niebuhr is not only a theorist. Like Marx, he combines 
theory with practice, but, unlike Marx, he does not arrogate 
the sole right to judge what is correct practice. Marx 
founded the First International, and finally wrecked it. One 
of Niebuhr's most considerable achievements as a Christian 
revolutionary was the part he played in founding, not an 
international, but an inter-church Fellowship of Socialist 
Christians, which has continued to grow steadily. In 
addition to works of practical support of social causes, as 
opportunity offers from time to time, 1 it conducts a 
thorough-going Christian propaganda of social interpreta- 
tion in the pages of its quarterly journal, Christianity and 
Society (which originally bore the title Radical Religion). 

The amount of writing Niebuhr does in this journal 
incidentally illustrates his tremendous energy and vitality. 
In every issue he writes the commentary on events as well 
as many of the reviews, which reveal that he has read the 
books he reviews. It is the commentary, however, which 
discloses the Christian revolutionary in full being. There is 
nothing else in contemporary Christian journalism quite 
equal to it or, for that matter, in secular journalism either. 
Mr. Douglas Woodruff, in the Roman Catholic Tablet, 
comes nearest which is frequently very near. It is criticism, 

1 Here are a few examples: the raising of a special fund to help in the 
rescue of anti-nazis in Europe; regular support of refugees from nazism 
in Europe; regular conferences on special problems of labour investiga- 
tion of special distress among lower-paid workers; study of relations in 
America between the Negroes and whites. 


theological, profound and prophetic. I present a few 
examples, which illustrate Niebuhr's power of extracting 
the permanent issue from the passing event. 

In 1938, Karl Barth wrote a letter to a Czech soldier in 
which he stated that by waging war against Hitler he would 
be defending the liberty of the Church as well as the security 
of his own country. Here is Niebuhr's comment: 

"We find these judgements astonishing, though we 
agree with them politically. They are astonishing 
because they come from a man who has spent all his 
energies to prove that it is impossible to mix relative 
political judgements with the unconditioned demands 
of the Gospel. Nothing discredits Earth's major 
theological emphasis more than his complete abandon- 
ment of his primary thesis in the hour of crisis. . . . We 
agree neither with Earth's previous separation of the 
Gospel from fateful political and historical decisions 
which we as men must make, nor yet with his present 
identification of the Czech soldier with the liberty of 
the Church of Christ. Surely Barth ought to be the 
last man to believe that the Church will be wiped out 
if the Hitlers and Mussolinis are not defeated. It may be 
forced into the catacombs, but the more the ridiculous 
Caesar-gods rage the more apparent it will become that 
Christianity is true and that it is the ultimate truth. 
The majesty of God is most perfectly revealed in the 
movement when the Christ is crucified. The gates of 
hell cannot prevail against this Church. . . . On the 
other hand it is quite true that the fate of a Christian 
civilization may well be decided or could have been 
decided by Czech soldiers. There is a difference 
between a civilization which seeks to build itself on 
the Gospel foundations and one which explicitly defies 
the Gospel. This difference is tremendous and it is 


worth fighting for. ... A culture lives in a civilization, 
and a civilization is a physical thing which can be 
destroyed and can be saved. But a culture is nothing 
more than a rationalization of a civilization if it is 
not also the fruit of a religion which is not primarily 
concerned about the future of cultures and civilizations" 
(Radical Religion, Vol. IV, no. i, pp. 4-5). 

Here is Niebuhr's interpretation of the German-Soviet 
pact of August, 1939: 

"What does strike one with horror is the communist 
defence of this procedure; the desperate effort which 
is being made to keep Russia clad in the shining armour 
of righteousness. The communist papers tell us that 
Stalin circumvented the Chamberlain policy of appease- 
ment, that the fear of the great Red Army brought 
Hitler to heel, that Stalin broke the Axis by dissociating 
Japan from Germany, etc. This is to make black white 
and white black in a fashion reminiscent of nazi 
propaganda. The arguments outrage the simplest logic. 
A pact which sets Germany free to fight does not 
circumvent appeasement. It is appeasement on a larger 
scale than ever attempted by Chamberlain. . . . What 
appals us particularly is the spiritual poverty which 
forces so many people in our era to talk this nonsense 
/ in order to save themselves from despair. One must 
continue to defend and to extend if possible whatever 
decency, justice and freedom still exist in this day when 
the lights are going out one by one. One can do that 
with clearest vision and courage if one has not placed 
one's faith in some frail reed of human virtue which 
does not exist. It is well for all Christians who have not 
fled into quietism but who have a sense of responsibility 
toward the problem of civilization to recognize 
clearly that the tragedy of our era is not merely the 


decay of a capitalistic-bourgeois social order; but the 
corruption of its alternative socialist order almost as 
soon as it had established itself. This does not mean 
that the task of advancing democracy to include 
economic justice as well as political justice is a hopeless 
one. After all bourgeois democracy did succeed in 
destroying feudalism, despite Napoleon's treason and, 
one might add, despite the degeneration of Cromwell's 
city of God into the first tyranny of modern history. 
The Kingdom of God is not of this world; yet its light 
illumines our tasks in this world and its hope saves us 
from despair. The Christian faith stands between the 
illusions and the despair of the world; it is particularly 
an antidote to the illusions which are stubbornly held 
in defiance of the facts in order to save men from 
despair" (op. tit., Vol. IV, no. 4, pp. 2-3). 

These two examples show the quality of Niebuhr's work 
in social criticism and interpretation. He discloses the moral 
and spiritual issues involved in the outer event. Nothing 
that he has done exceeds in importance this which I do not 
hesitate to call "contemporary prophesying." It reveals 
history as the arena of a divine Providence. 

Turning from the practical activities of Niebuhr to his 
character as a Christian revolutionary, let us seek to under- 
stand the distinctive principles which determined his 
prophetic inspiration and outlook. In other words, what are 
the elements into which his long struggle for clarity and 
coherence in Christian faith has finally crystallized, which 
inspire his revolutionary Christian consciousness? What are 
the lights by which "the revolutionary in being" steers his 
course in a complex world? I think they can be reduced to 


First is the principle of the relevance of an absolute, trans- 
cendent gospel to a relative situation; the applicability of Chris- 
tianity to every social situation. 

Now this principle is not so simple as it seems. It is in 
fact one of the profoundest significance. As we have seen, 
one of Niebuhr's earliest discoveries was the impossibility 
of a direct simple application of Christian ethic to the actual 
historic situation. This realization penetrates all his thinking 
and all his writing. No theme recurs as frequently as this in 
his work. It is the ground on which he chiefly criticizes 
liberal Christianity and pacifism. Niebuhr denies that the 
Kingdom of God is a historic possibility at all. You cannot 
apply what are called the principles of the Sermon on the 
Mount to sinful nations and societies in this world any more 
than you can play Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" on a 
sideboard. The illusion that you can, Niebuhr sees to be the 
greatest weakness in pacifism. The sum total of Christian 
ethic is contained in the injunction to love our neighbours 
as ourselves, the so-called "law of love." The pacifist 
assumes that this is a social possibility. But, says Niebuhr, it 
is not. It is a delusive simplification of a vast complexity. It 
is also a radical confusion and misunderstanding of the 
Christian gospel, including its "law of love," which is not 
a "law" at all. Christianity is not a revision of Jewish 
legalism. "The significance of the law of love is precisely 
that it is not just another law, but a law which transcends 
all law." Niebuhr will have no truck with the assumption 
that the law of love can be made an operative principle in 
political and social relationships. 

Now the simple, obvious conclusion to be drawn from 
this would seem to be that Christianity is not applicable at 
all to society, that the Christian faith has no relevance to 
history. The fact that Niebuhr did not draw this conclusion 
is profoundly significant. The obvious conclusion was a 
false conclusion, which suggests that the obvious and the 


true do not always coincide. But this was the conclusion 
which Lutheranism, in which Niebuhr was reared, tended 
to draw. To say that Luther himself drew this conclusion, 
that he handed the state over to the Devil, is much too 
unqualified a statement. But there was sufficient in Luther- 
anism to lend colour to this idea, as is proved by the fact that 
that tendency had crystallised into pietism in Germany by 
the eighteenth century. The denial of all relevance of 
Christianity to the historic situation, however, was much too 
simple. It was in fact a mere inversion of Christian liberalism. 
In the undue simplificationof Christianity, the extremes of 
pacifism and, shall we say, Bismarckism meet. Niebuhr, 
though he denied the possibility of a simple application of 
Christian ethic, did not embrace the opposite error of 
denying all application. The Christian faith still has relevance 
to history. As we have seen, Niebuhr criticized Earth for 
his too absolute denial of this very point. 

Now without attempting exhaustive discussion of what 
Niebuhr conceives to be the nature of the Christian relev- 
ance to society, 1 it may be stated that its essence lies in two 
directions: as an abiding judgement of human pride and 
sin; and as a dynamic approximation to perfect justice. The 
significance of these two statements will perhaps be better 
appreciated if we understand first of all what Niebuhr means 
by the Gospel. 

"The good news of the Gospel is not the law that we 
ought to love one another. The good news of the 
Gospel is that there is a resource of divine mercy which 
is able to overcome a contradiction within our souls, 

1 The reader is referred to An Interpretation of Christian Ethics for his 
discussion of this problem, especially to chapters iv, v and vi. The idea 
that Christianity still is relevant when its ethics is not applicable is so 
great a violation of conventional assumptions that the reader may find 
it difficult to comprehend. Persistent study of Niebuhr will reward the 
seeker on this point. 


which we cannot ourselves overcome. The contradic- 
tion is that, though we know we ought to love our 
neighbour as ourself, there is a law in our members 
which wars against the law in our minds. So that, in 
fact, we love ourselves more than our neighbour. 
The grace of God which is revealed in Christ is re- 
garded by Christian faith as, on the one hand, an actual 
'power of righteousness' which heals the contradiction 
within our hearts. In that sense Christ defines the actual 
possibilities of human existence. On the other hand, 
this grace is conceived as justification,' as pardon 
rather than power, as the forgiveness of God, which is 
vouchsafed to man despite the fact that he never 
achieves the full measure of Christ. In that sense 
Christ is 'the impossible possibility.' Loyalty to him 
means realization in intention, but does not actually 
mean the full realization of the measure of Christ. In 
this doctrine of forgiveness and justification, Chris- 
tianity measures the full seriousness of sin as a perman- 
ent factor in human history. Naturally the doctrine 
has no meaning for a secular civilization, nor for the 
secularized and moralized versions of Christianity. 
They cannot understand the doctrine precisely because 
they believe there is some fairly simple way out of the 
sinfulness of human history" (Christianity and Power 
Politics, pp. 2-3). 

What Niebuhr calls here "a contradiction in our souls" is 
a complex of two things, that in fact man never satisfies 
the ideal, but nevertheless believes that he can. But the 
belief is an illusion. Man never will satisfy the ideal. The 
illusion that he will is a protection for his pride, which, 
once broken radically broken would reduce man to 
despair. So all history, civilization and culture are a con- 
spiracy to defend man's pride, which they effect by the 


renewal of illusion. Now Christianity as judgement is 
precisely to bring man to despair, which is reality, to the 
acknowledgment of his utter inability ever to fulfil the ideal. 
But in the realization of that very despair lies man's great 
hope; for in the realization of despair judgement becomes 
mercy. Despair becomes the venue of a rebirth of the whole 
man. And this is the profundity of the relevance of Christian 
faith to every historical situation. It is to deprive man of his 
pride, which dooms civilization to perpetual frustration. 
Christianity as judgement is the point of a new leverage in 
historical development. 

By insisting then upon the relevance of the Gospel to the 
whole of life, Niebuhr is enabled to extract from every 
situation its maximum contribution to the moral well-being 
of society and the individual. 

The second principle is that the historic process is envisaged 
always in terms of person. Niebuhr s revolutionism is for the 
release of personality. 

The abiding sin of reformers and revolutionaries is the 
tendency to 'black-out' the individual. And it always 
happens to a greater or less degree, generally greater. In the 
totalitarian socialisms of to-day, this tendency becomes 
practically absolute. In the national-socialism of Germany 
and the Soviet socialism of Russia the individual counts for 
next to nothing. It is the objective process that matters. 
This is the final logic of something inevitable in the revolu- 
tionary temper, though it is not inevitable that it should 
achieve its final logic. Once we become involved in "move- 
ments" we imperceptibly begin to think of the historical 
results of our activities as things somehow divorced from 
people, from individuals of flesh and blood, who laugh and 
cry, eat and drink and sleep, suffer and rejoice. It is the 


supreme sin of all revolutionary movements. Opponents 
are, of course, absolutely divested of personality. They are 
objectified, categorized, depersonalized. They are "they" 
capitalist class, ancien regime, the exploiters or what-not. 
They cease to be thought of as human. If revolutions teach 
anything at all, they surely demonstrate that the dehuman- 
ization of opponents inevitably leads to the dehumanization 
of allies and supporters too. That is why the great historic 
revolutions always devour their own children none 
more so than the most recent of the series, the Russian 

The source of this is the divorce in our vision between 
process and person. The process becomes a thing-in-itself, 
a vested interest, for the defence of which individuals come 
to be regarded as instruments. Revolutions, alas!, are a 
necessity in a world of irrational humanity. But they breed 
a temper more vicious, cruel and callous than that which 
wars breed. Witness the disturbances in liberated Greece: 
the Greek factions hated one another more than they did 
the Germans. I experienced the same thing directly in Spain 
during the civil war: anarchist and communist hated each 
other far more than either hated Franco. The individual 
vanished as a person. He is transformed into a mere element 
in a process, from whence proceeds a tragic result; the aims 
of revolution are lost in the whirlpool of power, and the 
struggle to maintain it. 

Niebuhr thinks fundamentally in terms of the person. 
Not only does he think in terms of the person, he also feels 
in the same terms. That is to say, in this matter of historic 
process and personality, his thought and emotion are 
integrated. Niebuhr would be the last man in the world to 
claim that he is immune from the poison of power. But it 
makes all the difference in the world in revolutionary action 
and procedure whether the exercise of power has to contend 
with settled convictions which can check and delimit the 


inevitable abuse of power. This is precisely the social and 
political significance of personalism, of the envisaging of 
process as an affair of living men and women. The same 
truth can be put in another way. The secular revolutionary 
loves mankind, humanity. The Christian revolutionary 
loves men, individuals. The significance of this distinction 
cannot be exaggerated for politics and social action. Love 
for mankind can be Combined with hatred for the individual, 
which is one of the most appalling characteristics of revolu- 
tionary fervour in European history. One thinks, for in- 
stance, of the father of that tortured individual, Mirabeau. 
He was known as "Friend of the People"; but his treatment 
of his son was cold and cruel. It is fatally easy to love man in 
the mass, because no attitude lends itself more conveniently 
to the camouflaging and rationalization of self-love and 
will-to-power as a passionate love for man in the mass. Like 
every other human activity, love for man as person lends 
itself also to the corrupting element of sin and pride but 
with more difficulty, since the relationship is direct. Self- 
deception has less room in which to hide in a direct personal 
relationship than in remote institutional relationships. This 
goes back to Niebuhr's days in Detroit. As we have already 
learnt, the social problem presented itself to him then in 
the shape of concrete individuals, whose problems, anxieties 
and conditions were his personal care. That habit or attitude 
he has carried with him to this very day. It has shaped and 
moulded his whole social theory. And not only his social 
theory. The profound Christian character of his sociology 
determines his view of the entire historic process as one of 
ultimate personal release. In the last analysis, Niebuhr's 
vision of human fulfilment is not Utopia, but the Com- 
munion of Saints, which admirably defines the difference 
between men as a mass and man as a person. 


The third directive principle is awareness of the operation in 
oneself of the element of corruption which is seen to be operating 
in the whole historic process. Theologically expressed, the prophet 
himself also stands under the judgement which he pronounces 
upon society. 

Here again, this is a principle (or achievement) which 
looks much simpler than it really is. The proof of the depth 
and complexity of this principle is the fact of the rarity of 
its realization. How many preachers, for instance, are aware 
of the extent to which they are involved in the sins they so 
confidently condemn? The confidence of their condemna- 
tion is a demonstration of their unconsciousness. True 
prophecy is not a mere pronouncement, but a burdened 
utterance, for it tells of a doom which involves the prophet 
himself. Careless rapture may be the experience of the artist 
and poet. But the prophet is not an artist: he is an oracle. 
How many revolutionaries (to take another example) are 
there who are conscious of the degree to which they partici- 
pate in the very exploitation which they professedly abhor 
or, which is much less, are aware of the mere fact that they 
do participate to even the slightest degree? 

As has already been argued, revolution particularly breeds 
self-righteousness, and revolutionaries generally see them- 
selves as "innocent of the great transgression." The factional 
struggle for power in Russia after the death of Lenin 
exemplifies cruelly this moral and spiritual unconsciousness. 
And this unawareness of self-corruption in the bolshevik 
revolutionaries was appallingly costly in human lives. The 
world, in all probability, will never have the opportunity 
to study the statistics of the gigantic butcheries of the Stalin- 
Trotsky conflict. We can see the operation of the same sin 
in the wider arena of international strife. The victor's 
delusion that he is innocent altogether has nearly always 


been the seed of a new fatal political development. This does 
not mean, for example, that we should make no distinction 
between nazi crimes of policy and Allied policy. Doffing the 
white sheet of innocence does not mean that we should don 
the black sheet of the enemy. This is where so many 
pacifists violate the most elementary moral realities. There 
is a vast relative difference between what the nazis have done 
and even the worst things that the Allies have done. But 
Europe will more quickly recover health and sanity if the 
victors show some awareness that they too have had some 
responsibility for the sin of nazism. 

This simple-seeming principle, then, has profound, far- 
reaching and incalculable consequences for society. It can 
make a difference of life and death for millions of human 
beings. It can make a difference between intolerable misery 
and suffering and quiet happiness for still greater millions 
of ordinary human beings, who ask for nothing more than 
the right to pursue their own way of life, to enjoy the 
intimate delight and to suffer the petty irritations of daily 
family routine. And it can make the difference of progress 
and decay for whole civilizations. We too readily assume 
that simply because certain events did happen that they 
were bound to happen, that nothing different could have 
happened, which does not follow. Given the domination 
of the character of statesman and revolutionary by pride, 
by hubris, the congruent event is almost inevitable. But the 
unchecked sway of pride is not inevitable. For instance, it 
is not unreasonable to assume that, had the First Inter- 
national been guided by Engels instead of Marx, its history 
would have been different. The whole point of Christianity 
in relation to personal character is that the miracle of change 
is always a real possibility. Simultaneous change in all the 
actors of a particular social situation is not a historic pos- 
sibility, with the result that the application of the maximum 
wisdom in any given situation is not a possibility either. 


But sufficient change to modify a situation is a historic 

Not the least of the many contributions which Niebuhr 
has made both to theology and sociology has been his 
demonstration of the implications for politics of Christian 
virtues. When these are made plain in the way Niebuhr has 
shown, then they seem obvious and platitudinous. But that 
is always the case. Nobody has quite revealed the profound 
political implications of simple Christian humility as 
Niebuhr has done; it looks ordinary when demonstrated. 
But what a difference to society a practical demonstration 
would make is sufficiently suggested by the example of 
Niebuhr himself. His realization that the corruption which 
he sees in action in the things and people he criticizes is 
operating also in himself makes of him a rare kind of 
revolutionary. It makes a revolutionary who is not only 
emancipated from illusions about the decaying order, but 
also unburdened by illusions about the emerging order. 

The fourth of the principles defining the equipment of "the 
revolutionary in being" is that comprehension and balance are the 
result of appreciation of the truth in both sides of the conflict; in 
the appropriation of the permanent values both of tradition and of 
progress, of the old and the new. 

Niebuhr is, in other words, a true "dialectician." It is this 
quality in him which makes his writing difficult to so many 
people. But a little reflection should show that, in the 
dialectical character of his thinking and writing, Niebuhr 
reduces to self-conscious science what is confused and 
unconscious in the unthinking mind. Nobody in fact lives 
and thinks in terms only of the moment. Such a process is 
inconceivable. We all of us, the untrained and the most 
highly trained, unconsciously relate the past to the present. 


We carry and preserve much of the old in our appropriation 
of the new. We do not start every day de novo. We per- 
petuate something of the past in all our thinking. Dialectical 
thinking is a refinement and a complication of that habit 
and process. 

Now if, as Hegel maintains, the synthesis is an integration, 
a weaving into one, of the abiding elements in the thesis and 
the antithesis, then nothing can be more undialectical than 
to think of the old, the traditional, the passing order, in 
terms of destruction only. This is, in fact, the style and 
accent of so much Marxist propaganda, in which capitalism, 
for example, has become wholly evil. This is the great 
defect of secular Utopian thinking. Change has become a 
good in itself. Change for change's sake, in short. This too 
is what makes the secular left such a menace to civilization. 
It leads to a depreciation of tradition, which G. K. Chesterton 
called "the democracy of the dead." Tradition must be a 
contemporary factor if civilization is to remain healthy and 
secure. The votes of the dead should at least be weighed. 
But Utopian, progressive secularism tends to see good only 
in the future, which means, in fact, that it never sees any 
good at all; for the future never comes. In the moment of 
becoming it ceases to be future. It becomes only the drab 
present bereft of the good which was envisaged yesterday. 

Now Niebuhr sees the vitality of tradition as well as the 
dynamic of progress, the future against the background of 
the past. The most obvious example of this in his case is his 
apparently paradoxical balancing of traditional (orthodox) 
theology and progressive politics "right in theology and 
left in politics." 

This effective dialectical habit has made possible for 
Niebuhr the rare achievement of being able to retain the 
gains, the insights, which he has won from ideas and a mode 
of thinking since discarded; he carries them forward into 
new attitudes, when the old are transcended. He treasures 


the substance though the form disappears. Most thinkers lose 
the insights which came to them through ideas since 
abandoned. The essence of an idea, belief, creed or attitude 
can only be apprehended and appropriated from the inside. 
One can only feel or see the essence of toryism, for instance, 
by being a tory really and truly. Niebuhr has never been a 
tory: but he has been many things which he is no longer, 
and the insight gained from those abandoned philosophies 
he still retains. In the last war he was a pacifist, and if the 
reader makes a study of his booklet Why the Christian Church 
is not Pacifist, he will see an example of Niebuhr's per- 
petuated insight. This is why his thought is so rich and 

This principle it is which makes of Niebuhr the rarest of 
all kinds of revolutionaries the balanced revolutionary. 
Revolutionaries are necessarily extremists. Most of them are 
singular extremists i.e., obsessed with one idea or attitude. 
Niebuhr is also an extremist, but a plural extremist. He is 
obsessed with opposing extremes, whose tension makes for 
balance. And this is the true Christian revolutionary attitude. 
He keeps in tension time and eternity, which meet in man. 
This is what makes for Christian dynamic. G. K. Chesterton 
has described the paradox of Christian virtue and character 
in Orthodoxy, where he says that the truly Christian man 
practises opposite virtues to extravagance. To preserve in 
relation opposing elements, as Niebuhr does, makes for 
width as well as depth. It also makes for tolerance and charity. 
Niebuhr nourishes the old through its integration into the 

Here then we see the revolutionary in being responsible, 
human and humane; humble and burdened, and balanced 
and comprehensive. It is a formidable combination of 
qualities. It helps to explain his increasing influence on 
thoughtful people in two continents. 


"The Theory of the Permanent Revolution' 

I HAVE borrowed the title of this section from Trotsky's 
book of the same name. In a very much profounder 
way, Niebuhr's view of Christianity commits the Church, 
as the historic agent and vehicle of the Gospel, to a "theory 
of permanent revolution" in the literal sense. It commits 
the Church to a fundamental opposition to the world till 
the very end of time. Trotsky's permanent revolution was 
only pseudo-permanent, because he envisaged its fulfilment 
within history indeed within the contemporary phase of 
history. But Niebuhr's revolution is synchronous with the 
whole of the time-process and beyond. If the Church is to 
be faithful to her Lord and his Gospel, she must wage war 
against the world for the entire duration of history, until it 
is swallowed up in the eternal order. This is permanent 
revolution indeed. 

Sufficient has been said in preceding pages to indicate 
Niebuhr's conviction that the Kingdom of God is not a 
possibility for history. His whole outlook is so saturated 
with this conviction that it can be said, without the least 
exaggeration, that it comes out in every other sentence of his 
written work. This conviction has probably been the source 
of the most prolific misunderstanding of Niebuhr's teaching. 
This misunderstanding has been so crass, in some cases, as 
to accuse him of being an escapist from history a thing 
against which he is constantly at war. Whatever charge can 
be levelled against Niebuhr, one thing of which he cannot 
possibly be justly accused is of running away from the 
attempt to deal christianly with the historic situation. The 
application of the Gospel to history and the real manner in 


which that may be done is the connecting theme of all his 
work and it can be illustrated by a remark of Dr. Orchard's. 
Castigating the too-easy American attitude to divorce, "In 
some of the American states," said Orchard, "divorce can 
be obtained on the ground of 'incompatibility of tempera- 
ment.' Why! that is the object of marriage!" So it may be said 
of Niebuhr, that the object of all his thinking is to discover 
how the Gospel can be applied to civilization. His denial 
that the Kingdom of God is a historic possibility is for the 
purpose of clearing the ground of illusions and miscon- 
ceptions, so as to discover how it can really and truly be 

This ludicrous misinterpretation of Niebuhr arises, as 
suggested in my preface, from a too innocent unfamiliarity 
with the dialectical character of his thinking. Men trained, 
as we nearly all have been trained, in the tradition of a too 
formal logic, with its simple "either . . . or" find it difficult 
.to adapt themselves to the more complex processes of a 
more realistic logic with its "both . . . and." Niebuhr is 
painfully aware of the deeper complexity of existence, 
which is missed by the clearer rationalist. His richer per- 
ceptions are partly due to his realization of the fact of 
original sin. "The truth is," writes Niebuhr, "that, absurd 
as the classical Pauline doctrine of original sin may seem to 
be at first blush, its prestige as a part of the Christian truth is 
preserved, and perennially re-established, against the attacks 
of rationalists and moralists by its ability to throw light 
upon complex factors in human behaviour which con- 
stantly escape the moralists." Inability to perceive the tragic 
contradictions of human nature strengthens the attachment 
of the simple rationalist and the still simpler moralist to the 
inadequate ratiocinative processes of formal logic. A doc- 
trine of logic which makes inconsistency in thinking the 
greatest intellectual sin incapacitates men from appreciation 
of concrete, objective inconsistencies of act and will which 


do in fact exist. That js what history is a complex of 
contradictory acts, policies and institutions. 

It may be well, therefore, to say that, though Niebuhr 
denies the possibility of historic realization of the divine 
Kingdom, he strenuously insists that the Kingdom is, 
nevertheless, operative in history. 

"It is important to recognize that the Kingdom of God, 
according to the biblical conception, is never purely 
an other-worldly perfection, not even when it is 
interpreted in a gospel which is directed primarily to 
the Greek world. The Christian is taught to pray 
constantly 'Thy Kingdom come/ The hope of this 
prayer, when vital, is a constant pressure upon the 
conscience of man in every action. The kingdom which 
is not of this world is in this world, through man and 
in man, who is in this world, and yet not altogether of 
this world. Man is not of this world in the sense that 
he can never rest complacently in the sinful standards- 
which are normative in this world. He may be selfish 
but he cannot accept selfishness as the standard of con- 
duct. He may be greedy but he knows that greed is 
wrong. Even when his actions do not conform to his 
ideals he cannot dismiss his ideals as irrelevant. . . . 
The kingdom which is not of this world is always in 
this world in man's uneasy conscience." 1 

The permanent revolution is thus involved, not only in 
the conflict between the relative achievements of history 
and the absolute ideal, but also in the character and structure 

1 Beyond Tragedy, pp. 278-9. The reader should ponder the whole 
chapter from which die above passage is quoted. It is an address entitled 
"The Kingdom Not of this World." It is an excellent example and one 
of the less difficult ones of Niebuhr 's way of thinking. 


of human nature, which is itself a tension of two worlds, 
two orders of being. Man is a two-dimensional entity, and 
cannot therefore escape the fate of an unresolved con- 
tradiction in the present time-order. But does not the theory 
of a permanent revolution involve a theory of organization 
for conducting it? In other words, the theory of a church? 
It is in trying to answer this question that there is ground 
for a legitimate and much more serious criticism of 

In any realist discussion of the problem of the" relation 
between Church and World, of the distinction and opposi- 
tion between them, the question of the nature 1 * of the 
Church as an organized body is fundamental and inescapable. 
If the Gospel is first of all, as Niebuhr says, a proclamation 
of the mercy and judgement of God, if the redemption of 
mankind is wholly the work of God, it is clear that without 
a body committed whoUy to that proclamation it cannot be 
historically operative and effective. In other words, the 
historic witness to the Gospel necessitates a church; for 
without a church the Gospel would be lost in human dis- 
integration and corruption. Without a church, in other 
words, the Christian revolution loses its permanence. The 
Gospel would be corrupted into identification with the 
current, conventional moralities. The Church alone has 
preserved the Gospel as a transcendent distinctive reality in 
the world. Whenever, for instance, the formulation of 
doctrine has threatened the distinctiveness of the Gospel as 
Redemption, as in the Arian controversy, it was the Church 
that saved the situation. Whenever, again, the Church has 
threatened to become wholly ineffective as the historic 
guardian of the Gospel, as in the era of the Reformation, it 
is the Holy Spirit within the Church not diffused through 
society, but within the sacramental body of the Church 
that has re-fashioned the Church to its essential mission. The 
discussion, therefore, of the Church as a historic, organized 


entity, is not a mere ecclesiastical luxury. It is fundamental 
to the Gospel 

It is on this question that Niebuhr is theologically defec- 
tive. His neglect of this whole field of theology does afford 
legitimate ground for criticism. His absorption in the 
various issues of the Gospel as an independent proclamation, 
as an entity in itself, in its transcendental aspect divorced 
from its historic community with the Church, has resulted 
in a neglect of a fundamentally significant field of theology. 
It has been said justly, for instance, that Niebuhr is very 
"cavalier in his attitude to the question of ministerial order." 1 
This is symbolical of a radical defect in Niebuhr's outlook. 
Perhaps, deep down, this is what Canon Raven and others 
feel and mean when they say that Niebuhr is "not a 
theologian." It is his unawareness of the importance of all 
those questions which in the narrower sense are conceived 
within the Church in her relation to herself, so to speak. He 
has concentrated, to an undialectical extent, on the problem 
of the relation of the Gospel to civilization to the almost 
complete neglect of its relation to the Church. I give one 
example of this. 

What is the significance and value of episcopacy in the 
economy of the Church? As far as I know, Niebuhr has 
nowhere raised or explored this question, which is vital to 
the existence of the Church, and therefore to the whole 
problem of the relation between Christianity and civiliza- 
tion. 2 Whatever else may be charged against him, the one 
thing he cannot be accused of is indifference to the problem 

1 By the Rev. A. R. Vidler, who is excelled by nobody in appreciation 
of Niebuhr. 

2 Here we must write with some reserve. I am familiar with every- 
thing which Niebuhr has published in book form and also with a great 
deal of his journalism. It is possible, of course, that he has written on 
questions of church organization etc., and that these writings have 
escaped me which I doubt. None of them are in book form. Neither 
has any hint of these questions come out in personal discussions. 


of the relation of Christianity to civilization. Yet the 
effectiveness of the Gospel as a historic power depends on a 
question which has very little place in Niebuhr's thinking, 
in so far as his thinking is evidenced by his published work. 
Is episcopacy of divine ordination, which is the Catholic 
(not simply Roman) contention? Is it a necessity of church 
constitution? Can the Church continue to function effec- 
tively without it? From this question arises a whole range of 
cognate questions what constitutes ordination, ministerial 
authority, the place of the sacraments? These questions 
every one of them are not merely ecclesiastical, but are, 
finally, of profound sociological significance. Just as Lenin's 
theory of party constitution has been vital for the develop- 
ment of the Russian revolution, which, in its turn, has been 
of enormous significance for Europe and the world (and is 
going to prove of still greater significance in the post-war 
world), so this question of episcopacy and cognate issues is 
ultimately vital for civilization, as well as for the Church. 
The theory of the permanent revolution the Christian 
revolution is tied up with it. It is therefore not too much 
to argue that Niebuhr's neglect of this field of theology is 
a serious inadequacy, both for a theologian and for a 
Christian revolutionary. 

The inevitable tendency of Niebuhr's work, however, is 
towards the sharpening of the issue of Church versus World. 
No contemporary theologian has done more to define that 
issue in current terms. The net result of his work is to com- 
pel us, even the secularists amongst us, to essay a recon- 
sideration of the place and significance of the Church as an 
historic institution, responsible for the safe-keeping of the 
Gospel and its eternally valid message. To the criticism 
which I have made here of the balance of his work, Niebuhr 
may well reply that no man can possibly cover the whole 
field of Christian theology. And that, of course, is true. But 
this does not altogether meet the point, which is that what 


is true and valid in one's own thinking inevitably suffers 
some distortion when it is not balanced by its complement. 
The necessary balancing problem of the Gospel in relation 
to civilization is the Gospel in relation to the Church. The 
tenor of Niebuhr's work is, in fact, to focus that issue more 
decisively. And for this, every thinking Christian man 
which does not, unhappily, . mean every Christian man 
will be duly grateful. In this as in every other aspect of 
Christian thought and practice, Niebuhr is always, in the 
finish, "on the side of the angels." 

Reinhold Niebuhr is a gift of God to a tortured and 
troubled world. He is, by any standard of judgement 
whatsoever, a leading, if not the leading, theorist in the 
contemporary revolution in Christian thought. He has made 
orthodox theology relevant to our secular crisis. He has 
made it intellectually respectable. In our optimistic youth, 
many of us drifted into liberal Protestantism because we 
shared too easily the assumption that orthodoxy was 
intellectually discredited. It had ceased to be fashionable. It 
was out of date. Every bright young thing was modernist 
by definition. Niebuhr has powerfully helped to change all 
that. Nowadays, it is the old who are theological liberals. 
The young, who as always tend to swim with the tide, are 
orthodox. Niebuhr has been one of the influences that have 
reversed the theological tide. But he has done more than 
that. By his prophetic insight and passion, he has made the 
Christian faith an inescapable social issue for a generation 
whose own secular faith has proved to be bankrupt. This 
achievement makes his place secure in the apostolical 
succession of Christian revolutionaries. 


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